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Out of the shadow and into the light

First Nations say Games raised profile



Many First Nation leaders say the 2010 Games took them out of the shadow and into the limelight.

"It's one of the first times we've become visible in our own lands, we've been invisible for so long, ignored and any instances that we became more visible was when we were being moved out of our different reserves," says Squamish First Nations chief Gibby Jacob.

"For Squamish our efforts to seize the agenda were successful and these relationships that we developed over the pre-Olympics really paid dividends for us. I think our ability to show people that once we started things we could conclude them...it was if we got ours it was because everybody else got some as well."

Squamish, along with the Lil'wat, Musqueum and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations partnered early on in the Games process to make sure their voices and wants were addressed as the event planning got under way.

Known as the Four Host First Nations (FHFN) they set up shop and became an integral part of the planning from securing building contracts to appearing in opening and closing ceremonies.

Though not all First Nations members shared a supportive view of the event, backers say that the Games provided a very public platform for their people to showcase their traditions and ability to successfully navigate the modern world.

Some might argue that having to seize the agenda instead of being more naturally integrated in the process shows the degree to which local First Nations groups are still outside of the provincial and federal decision making process, but Jacob isn't sweating the implications.

As part of the Olympic Legacy, the Squamish Nation was given an additional 300 acres in the Whistler Valley and has support from both levels of government to finance it. Domestic financial sponsors of the Games also brought in a significant cash flow to the groups, including a $3 million donation for the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre from Bell Canada.

A depleted economy and high building prices caused cost overruns in the completion and operation of the centre, forcing the Squamish and Lil'wat bands to sell 24 acres to pay off the debt but the remainder of the land is intact and will be used to develop townhouses in the future.

FHFN executive director Tewanee Joseph said learning to manage land and maximize business opportunities collectively among themselves has helped strengthen relations inter-tribally and with the rest of the community.

"Now they can have better conversations about what is better for the region...I think this is a model for indigenous people around the world," says Joseph, who consults with aboriginal groups around the globe and will soon leave for New Zealand to work with the Māori people leading up to the 2011 Rugby World Cup.