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Snowboarder Dakotah Newman, 16, flies off a jump at Whistler February 10, 2011. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Snowboarder Dakotah Newman, 16, flies off a jump at Whistler February 10, 2011. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Olympics were sweet and sour dish for first nations Add to ...

For Dakotah Newman, the 2010 Winter Olympics was the snowboard-cross and half-pipe competition.

The 16-year-old snowboarder remembers the thrill of watching the athletes and believes he may have his own moment on the podium a few years from now, with the help of a new program to train aboriginal Olympians.

But for Dallas Arcand, the Olympics experience was someone rudely shouting “make your Indian calls now” in his earphone. A world champion hoop-dancer, he expected his performance before three billion people would help his career. However, the Olympics turned out to be just another gig, with no spinoffs.

On the first anniversary of the Winter Games in Vancouver and Whistler, several first nations people recalled the good times. The 2010 Olympics held out the promise of unprecedented involvement and significant economic benefits for Canada’s aboriginal people, a commitment from organizers that went far beyond anything ever offered to indigenous people in a country hosting the Games.

In interviews, some said the benefits exceeded their expectations. They listed results ranging from Prime Minister Stephen Harper abandoning his refusal to signing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to a drug addict who cleaned up to carry the torch and remains drug-free one year later.

Others said they were still waiting to see any signs of a legacy. They shared the proud moments in the quest for gold with other Canadians across the country, but their lives were not affected.

The benefits for aboriginal peoples in years before and during the Games were clear. The Olympic organizing team says jobs and contracts worth $57-million were awarded to native employees and aboriginal-owned businesses beginning in 2003. At the Games, the aboriginal presence was everywhere – 300 native youth dancers in the opening ceremonies, aboriginal art at Olympic venues and the aboriginal roundhouse pavilion, one of the most popular at the Games.

Several native leaders said the benefits just kept on coming. “Some amazing things have happened in the year since the Olympics,” said Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. At the top of his list is Canada’s endorsement in November of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Canada had been one of only two countries refusing to sign the declaration approved by the UN in 2007.

Tewanee Joseph, who headed the organization that represented the four host first nations, says the Olympics actually shifted attitudes. He was told about children at an elementary school, proud of their heritage, arguing about who has aboriginal ancestry.

B.C. businesses are now reaching out to first nations, looking for opportunities on aboriginal lands and for first nations youth who can be trained for their companies, he said. Perceptions have shifted, he said. The image of first nations people as angry Indians has changed to “we are business … and we want to work together,” he said.

Accenture Business Services of B.C. is in the early stages of establishing the global company’s Skills to Succeed training program in the province. The initiative  was an offshoot of the Games, said Blake Hanna, the company’s managing director for B.C. The company, which had around 200 volunteers at the Olympics under its loaned employee program, was drawn into conversations about what to do after the Games, he said.

Another legacy of the Games came from initiatives taken by first nations to move their youth out of the grandstands and into the competitions. Many are now involved in snowboarding competitions.

Mr. Newman, an above-average student at Howe Sound Secondary School in Squamish, B.C., said he aims to train every chance he has. He had just returned from a competition at Mount Seymour in which he placed fourth. He has been on the podium with firsts, seconds and thirds “many times,” he said. He has been snowboarding for five years, since he was 11, and is now classified as a high-performance athlete in a first nations training program that was developed as an Olympics legacy project.

The program, which has close to 200 athletes in divisions across B.C., includes nutrition and instruction in sport psychology, as well as dry land training. “Without the Games we would not exist,” said Aaron Marchant, team manager and founder.

Mr. Newman is clear: No alcohol, no smoking, no drugs. “We’re on a strict diet to eat healthy,” he said. He believes he could be competing at the Olympics within the next decade. “I think I could, if I train hard enough, if I push myself,” he said.

The Assembly of First Nations has also taken up the goal of developing aboriginal athletes. Olympian Waneek Horn Miller, co-captain of Canada’s water polo team in 2000, is spearheading a AFN program called IndigenACTION to develop a national strategy for health, fitness, sport and wellness of aboriginal people.

“It’s about producing healthier and more fit communities, where the natural byproduct is more athletes going after dreams, more people participating in sports and more families who are fit,” said Ms. Horn Miller, who was a host and commentator on APTN at the Olympics. A meeting is to be held Feb. 15 in Winnipeg to launch a discussion on how the program should be developed.

But not everyone could point to Olympic legacies.

William Lindsay, director of the office for aboriginal people at Simon Fraser University, said he has not seen evidence of an Olympic legacy for many first nations people. “I was as proud as anyone to go to some of the events and, being a Vancouverite, proud as heck that it was here, proud to see the Canadian athletes,” he said.

But the Winter Games were just an expensive two-week party, he added. “If I look at its legacy, I do not see it as extra special for first nations. … For the amount of money that went into this big two-week party, we still have a lot of social issues that I am sure the money could have been better spent on.”

Dallas Arcand’s manager Peter D’Amico said the Olympics did not lead to much for aboriginal entertainers. Mr. Arcand, a professional hoop dancer who had previously recorded three albums, said the Olympics meant nothing to his career.

He felt it was an honour to be asked to dance at the opening ceremonies, and he appreciated working with the choreographer and producer. But he also recalled how instructions were shouted into his earphone. He would hear someone tell him how to dance, how to act, how to make noises. “We just had to do what we were told,” Mr. Arcand said. He felt like an extra on a movie set, not an accomplished performer.

The Winter Games did not bring in any work after the Olympic flame went out, he added. “It was just another gig. At the end, everyone packed up and went home,” Mr. Arcand said. “Things could have been done differently.”

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