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Morning in Mount Currie

Olympic torch illuminates First Nation community's ambitions



Day is breaking and Mount Currie is nervous.

The Indian reserve just four kilometres east of Pemberton is slowly opening its eyes on to one of the biggest days in its history. Seven members of the Lil'wat Nation are about to run the Olympic torch into town and people don't quite know how to feel.

The Olympics have been a hard sell in a community that normally hovers around 80 per cent unemployment. Even the Chief of the band council wasn't sold from the start - "token involvement" wasn't for him, he says. A call for applications to be community torchbearers yielded only four responses.

Concerns persist even today, just six days from the start of the biggest event that's ever been held in the Lil'wat Nation's traditional territory. Some worry that protests will interrupt the relay; others worry the torch will be greeted by apathy.

The community of about 2,000 people has taken on a second task this day: the opening of Ullus, a new community complex that will house the band office, gymnasium, radio station and culture centre.

Almost four years and $4 million in the making, it replaces a crumbling old facility with warped floors and air ducts that were known to clam up people's nasal passages. The new building is expected to serve as the heart of the community once completed. Today, it's not quite done - but Torch Relay Day seems a fitting occasion to open its doors.

It's a foggy morning on Feb. 6. The community is wearily opening its eyes on the big day. Horses stand solemnly in a misty field across from the complex. Inside Ullus, a building whose entrance is flanked by totem-like pillars, members are preparing a community breakfast and blowing up red and white balloons.

Meanwhile brothers Fraser and Frank Andrew are performing a smudge ceremony in the gymnasium. One burns an incense-like stick, the other waves a band of bonded cedar, blessing every inch they pass. They want to ensure that the building has good energy and that the spirits are honoured on opening day.

In Mount Currie, the dead don't pass on - their spirits remain and watch over the living.

More nervous than the rest is Frank Wallace, a former drug and alcohol counselor at the local health centre who'll administer a prayer when the flame arrives. Dressed in traditional regalia, the respected carver and dancer trembles as he speaks.

Today is the culmination of a long, hard road for Frank. He spent his formative years at Sechelt Indian Residential School, where for 10 years he received a very basic education that brought him to a Grade 4 level.