Natives' Games pleas falling on deaf ears

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 November, 2008, 12:00am


In the fight over the public image of Vancouver, supporters of the Olympics clearly won the latest round of the battle last week.

Major protests were planned by activists to send the message that the Winter Olympics would drive up homelessness and worsen conditions for indigenous people.

There was hope that the arrival of 250 foreign journalists for the international briefing on the Games would boost their cause.

'The international media needs to realise that not all is peachy keen in Vancouver,' said Harsha Walia, with the coalition group Olympics Resistance Network.

'The propaganda by organisers is this is going to be the most environmentally friendly games and will benefit people overall, when the reality is very different.'

Ms Walia says one of the pledges made during the bid for the Games was that no one would be displaced as a result. But she says the reality is that street homelessness has surged since Vancouver won the bid and more than 1,200 low-income housing units have been lost in the Downtown Eastside since 2003.

The protesters have a point, but there are other factors to take into account. Much of the low-income housing in the downtown area was converted into condominiums when prices were high. Increasingly, those developments have been put on hold or abandoned and are unlikely to be converted back into social or low-income housing.

At a rally that was supposed to be a dramatic and boisterous attempt to draw attention to these issues, foreign journalists weren't the only ones who didn't show up. Only a dozen or so protesters appeared. Police outnumbered the activists.

Tourism Vancouver spokeswoman Wendy Underwood, who was part of the group that hosted the journalists, said the media profile of the Olympics was a huge opportunity for the city.

Five thousand athletes will be in town during the two weeks of the Games, but more than 10,000 media will also be here, and staging an event ahead of time not only helps journalists get prepared but also generates stories before 2010.

Journalists have been taken on tours and out to eat at some of the city's best restaurants. Some who are familiar with Vancouver have noted that the tours seem to go around the Downtown Eastside, while activists say they've noticed alleyways in the downtrodden area have been paid extra attention recently by city cleanup crews.

Ms Underwood says foreign journalists are likely to ask about issues such as homelessness and poverty, as they have in other Olympic cities.

'We don't set ourselves up as a perfect place,' she said. 'We're honest with people. We are an open and democratic society. As much as we may not agree with what some people think, they have the right to express their opinion.'

The torch relay announcement drew more foreign journalists than a press conference held in Chinatown by the activists.

Attendees outnumbered seats at the conference centre when leaders from four major native groups whose territories are in Vancouver and Whistler, where Olympic events will take place, welcomed dignitaries and the media.

Squamish Nation Chief Ian Campbell said it was up to the media and the public to send out modern smoke signals about the Games' arrival in Vancouver and Whistler. The Olympics would transform communities for the better, he said.

Native activists who spoke at another press conference said facilities built for the events were stolen from indigenous populations.

Dustin Johnson, a member of the Tsimshian Nation, said the Olympic infrastructure would lead to further destruction of native territories.

At the end of the activists' press conference, one of the co-ordinators got up to ask the small group whether there was any international media present.

He got no response.

Tomorrow: New York