Nearly two years after the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, aboriginals are still feeling the positive effects of pioneering indigenous participation on the world stage. Youth who participated or were inspired by viewing the performances and meeting athletes “are taking it to another level,” said Tewanee Joseph, the executive director of Four Host First Nations.
“It was always our belief that the games would be a launching point,” he said, lending a new level of visibility for aboriginal people while helping them “to see that there is an opportunity beyond the bounds of our communities.”
The goal of aboriginal participation in the Games was “that it would start that conversation.”
When he chatted with Indian Country Today Media Network just before the Summit, Joseph had just returned from the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, where he had consulted on how to weave Maori participation into the championship events. It was modeled on the Canadian aboriginal participation in the Olympics, and Joseph was called in to consult.
“The meaningful engagement of Maori culture there was paramount,” Joseph said. They had a pavilion just as the Olympic aboriginals did, connecting young people and athletes, as well as a myriad of other events.
The New Zealand organizers faced challenges similar to those that Joseph and his team had: Mistrust between aboriginals and the mainstream organizers, a hesitancy to get involved with one another. The end result has been “more willingness to engage with Indigenous People but also in the private sector they want to engage more meaningfully with Indigenous Peoples,” Joseph said. “I think that opens up the door on where we go as Indigenous Peoples because we do need to get outside our community.”
Nearly two years after the Vancouver Olympics, the youth who participated in and were inspired by the festivities are doing things like giving speeches in Europe and furthering their education.
“Some have taken it to another level, and that’s really opened up the doors,” Joseph said. “I get story after story on young people doing different things and taking it to another level on their lives.”
In the beginning the mind-set was cautious, he said. Aboriginals didn’t trust Olympic organizers.
“Oftentimes we’ve been left on the sidelines or asked to participate in things either later in the game or not at all,” Joseph said.
But he and his team reached out, enabling aboriginal youth from as far away as eastern Canada to come to Vancouver. It was all about inclusion and celebrating aboriginal cultures, and showcasing them to the world, he said.
Yukon first nations had a number of youth participate in the ceremonies. Later they told Joseph that some of them had gone on to speak in Europe about their participation in the games. Another person moved to Vancouver to get an education, having never left her small community before. Another girl, an Inuit, is living her life totally differently, Joseph said.
At the same time, getting the kids into it was “a major challenge,” and orchestrating aboriginal participation in the Games took seven years. But the rewards came early on, when a chief told him that when Olympic preparations had first started, with no aboriginal participation on the horizon, he’d felt as it “there was a birthday party happening in a house and I was looking in the window.”
At the same time, “although there’s a willingness to do it to a certain extent, there is some trepidation,” Joseph said. So the challenge became one of starting small and building not only a brand but also awareness.
“It was tough, there were struggles no doubt, I felt like giving up at times, but as we got closer to the games [it became obvious that] we could say things about this culture and about our country that non-aboriginals could not,” Joseph said. It was the first major global participation event that included aboriginals so prominently.
He cited recent research done in Australia into engagement with indigenous peoples in events. Of 200 surveyed, he said, 199 were protests and one was about meaningful inclusion of indigenous peoples. “And that was ours.”
So where to now?
“It’s really a new time for this country and a new time for Indigenous Peoples. We need a call to action, and that includes our own communities but also outside, and in the private sector,” Joseph said, adding that Indigenous Peoples need to be open to involvement outside their cultures.
“How can we get out of that, and that’s what we’re facing right now,” Joseph said. “It’s a really critical time for all our peoples.”
The Games, he said, showed exactly how such participation can work by laying a model of inclusivity, which Joseph said is based on three points.
First, you need leadership, someone who can develop and engage the vision to articulate what you want to do and have other people understand it. Second, respect and understanding: fostering the practice of working together and communicating openly.
“It’s about having tough conversations, finding solutions to seemingly impossible situations, moving forward into planning a successful initiative,” Joseph said.
The third building block is partnership, both inside and outside aboriginal communities. Seeing what’s possible in that regard is inspiring aboriginals to think about what their communities want to achieve in 20, 30, 50 years, Joseph said. It helped remote communities break out of isolation. It promoted, overall, sport, athleticism and exercise, and the setting of goals that they could both articulate and plan to meet.
Involvement did not come without controversy.
“Some people didn’t think it was meaningful,” he said. They felt that the spectacles and performances gave the false impression that Canada was one big happy family and that aboriginals are accorded equal treatment.
Joseph saw it differently.
“I can honestly say that it’s not fine, but at the same time what we tried to do was concentrate on images from people that were good,” he said. “If you always see in media that we’re no good and always in crisis and trouble and always doing bad things, you start to believe it.”