The Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics opening ceremonies were skillfully-done Canadian propaganda. The Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC) did so many things right for the opening ceremonies with respect to indigenous-related symbolism. However, the main problem with the opening ceremonies were that they gave the impression to the rest of the world that the Canadian government respects the rights of indigenous people, when indigenous peoples are the most marginalized ethnic groups in Canada.
Canadians often think of ourselves as a “multicultural” country and a “nation of immigrants”, and these concepts of national identity conveniently erase the primacy of indigenous people and obscure Canada’s colonial history. Surprisingly, the opening ceremonies did not fall into the trap of celebrating “Aboriginal Canadians” along with “Chinese Canadians” as if indigenous people are just another non-white ethnic group. The opening ceremonies recognized that the Olympics were on the land of the Four Host First Nations—Lil’wat, Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh—and that even other indigenous groups had to be welcomed into Vancouver by the Four Host First Nations.
Not only did the opening ceremonies rightly give primacy to indigenous people—and the geographically-relevant indigenous people—but this way of thinking of national identity avoids the othering of Canadians of colour that is characteristic of Canadian multiculturalism. For example, Canadian multiculturalism typically celebrates “Chinese Canadians” as an example of the “different” cultures in Canada, which frames Chinese Canadians as culturally different and culturally other, regardless of the cultural realities of Chinese Canadians. At the same time, it portrays White Canadians as culturally neutral, regardless of the cultural realities of White Canadians, and simultaneously ignores the dominance of Anglo and Western European culture in education, history, national holidays, and social conventions.
In any case, while the symbolism of the opening ceremonies was socially advanced in terms of portraying Canadian identity, it was completely incongruent with the realities of systemic discrimination and racism against indigenous people in Canada. For example, Unicef reports that in almost any measure of health and well-being, indigenous children are at least two or three times worse off than other Canadian children. Amnesty International reports that young Indigenous women are five times more likely than other women of the same age to die from violence. The Canadian corrections system incarcerates Aboriginal Canadians nine times more than the national average and continues to discriminate against them inside prisons.
The opening ceremonies represent a more ideal Canada where indigenous people are generally healthy, happy, and have the institutional power to welcome or unwelcome international organizations, but this was another carefully-crafted illusion along with the other special effects.
“The Canadian Government is using the Olympics as a big advertisement that our lands are open for business,” Kanahus charged. “But we want the world to know that our lands are not for sale here in BC. Our lands here are unsurrendered, unceded indigenous territories – we have never given up our land.