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Phil Fontaine’s cynical threat to protest the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver

The Post editorial board:
Posted: By Marni Soupcoff

Phil Fontaine is no doubt speaking the truth when he says that the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver are likely to provide an occasion for Aboriginal protest across Canada – and that this protest may, like the ongoing pro-Tibetan festival of chaos surrounding the Olympic torch, take disruptive forms. “We [Indians] find the Tibet situation compelling,” the Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) said at a press conference, sending a coded message whose meaning is quite obvious.

In the same breath, Mr. Fontaine acknowledged that the AFN made an agreement last year with the Olympic organizing committee to help “ensure successful 2010 Winter Games,” a commitment sealed with his personal signature.

And so his new threat would seem to rest on one of two unstated premises: (1) Either his earlier promise was a cynical gesture to be recanted once his bargaining position improves (which it has, thanks to the sight of track-suited Chinese paramilitary thugs wrestling with human-rights activists in Paris and other cities); or (2) He doesn’t actually speak for Canada’s Aboriginal people, and so cannot bind them with his signature.

In fact, both premises are correct.

First, consider this comment from Mr. Fontaine recently: “I would hope that we would not be forced to take disruptive measures [against the Games]. I am confident and optimistic that won’t be necessary.” Political extortion doesn’t get much more blatant than that. Put yourself in the place of Olympic organizers: How would you feel if someone wrote you a cheque and then breezily told you: “I am confident and optimistic you’ll be able to cash that?”

And no, the AFN does not, in fact, represent Canadian natives – at least not in any sort of politically meaningful way: Despite its grand pretentions, the organization is nothing more than a glorified lobbying organization. Its constituents are not rank-and-file Natives, but rather the 600 or so band chiefs whose power rests on Ottawa’s willingness to shovel $8 billion-plus their way every year. And so, even if he wanted to, Mr. Fontaine is not in a position to guarantee protests will – or won’t – come in 2010.

Yet for all his cynical, parochial posturing, Mr. Fontaine has caught on to an important phenomenon – one whose ramifications go well beyond Canada. A larger trend is afoot: the Tibetan sallies against the Olympic torch have opened up miraculous new vistas for the international game of protest. And these vistas will remain open long after the last medals have been awarded in Beijing.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded Communist China the Games with all the serene confidence of the elite internationalist. By the IOC’s criteria, the decision made perfect sense; the People’s Republic, home to one-fifth of the human species, was at long last economically and logistically ready to host, and if its leaders fell a little short on the political morality scale, well, whose don't?

What the IOC failed to anticipate was that the truce of nation-states that underpins the Olympic ideal no longer commands as much respect in the developed world as it once did. The end of the Cold War has, in time, made the cause of "world peace" seem less urgent. Left-wing protesters – many of them Buddhists – suddenly seem perfectly willing to attack a symbol of “peace.” And why not? “Peace” between nation-states means non-interference in one another’s interior politics, and non-interference means that unlucky stateless peoples such as the Tibetans are at the mercy of a ruling power unless and until they can secure independence themselves.

Where, then, will the Olympic torch be safe now that its sanctity has been violated with impunity? How long will it be before those left out of the game of nations come to regard the Olympic facilities, the ceremonies and the events themselves as fair game for “direct action?”

Following Beijing’s act may thus turn out to be an unexpectedly difficult challenge for Canada and the city of Vancouver. Canada’s First Nations have everything to gain from trying to provoke a security overreaction, which would be shown to the world on video and interpreted with horror by international viewers whose understanding of our country’s history is necessarily as shallow as ours is of China’s.

No signature on a piece of paper, certainly not Phil Fontaine’s, is likely to tempt them to ignore such a priceless photo-op.

If violence does come, it is unlikely to advance the fortunes of Natives in this country (just as pro-Tibetan protests have done little to help Tibet). All it will do is bring the Olympic franchise one step closer to history’s dustbin: In the future, what nation will want to host an event whose primary function will be to hoist the grievances of its most umbraged citizens onto an international soapbox?

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