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Natives to use Olympics to press poverty issues

The federal and British Columbia governments have been warned that the Olympic Games will be used as an international stage to highlight native poverty unless funding is provided for economic development in aboriginal communities.

Squamish Chief Bill Williams, chair of the Four Host First Nations, which until now have shown a unified front in working to promote the Olympics, issued that caution in an interview yesterday.

Leonard Thomas, president of the BC First Nations Forestry Council, said the same thing in letters to government officials.

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"The time for plain talking is now upon us. Our forest-dependent first nations communities are no longer willing to quietly sit back and wait for actions that never come," Mr. Thomas said in a letter to B.C. Forests Minister Pat Bell.

"The fact that your government and its federal partner are spending $3-billion to stage the Winter Olympics is merely exacerbating the frustration and anger felt by our communities as they continue to be told that there is no money in the pot to address their situations, which, as you are fully aware, are of a most desperate nature."

Mr. Thomas asked for an urgent meeting to resolve the issue, and said if steps aren't taken, "the FNFC and its member first nations will reluctantly, but without hesitation, take advantage of the intense international media interest that will be focused on B.C. before and during the Winter Olympics."

Mr. Thomas sent a similar letter to Stockwell Day, Minister of International Trade. Copies of both letters, dated Dec. 18, were obtained by The Globe and Mail.

In an interview, Mr. Williams supported the letters.

"There's going to be some 14,000 media people running around [at the Olympics]" he said. "Some of them are already contacting us. They want to know, 'What's it like to be an Indian in today's world? How do you live?' We are going to start letting those reporters know the reality of the poverty we face."

In addition to being chair of the Four Host First Nations, Mr. Williams is vice-president of the BC First Nations Forestry Council. He said the BC FNFC has been seeking $6.2-million in funding from the province to help develop aboriginal forestry businesses, and for several years has been trying to secure $135-million from Ottawa to deal with a forest fire hazard created by B.C.'s pine beetle epidemic.

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But Mr. Williams said the B.C. government has offered just $620,000 to the BC FNFC, while the federal government has failed to provide pine beetle funding, despite promises to spend nearly $1-billion over 10 years on the problem.

Mr. Bell, however, said his government has been working hard to improve economic opportunities and has completed agreements with 167 native communities, providing logging access to 43 million cubic metres of timber and $243-million in revenue sharing.

He said the BC FNFC's request for funding was not approved because the government first wants a detailed financial plan.

"It's great that they are looking for $6-million, but in times of budget restraint ... it is very challenging for me to find that kind of money," Mr. Bell said. "At this point, we are waiting for them to come back to us ... and outline what it is they intend to do and how they will provide value for those taxpayer dollars."

A spokesperson for Mr. Day said the minister is aware of the concerns expressed in the letter and plans to respond.

Tewanee Joseph, chief executive officer of the Four Host First Nations, expressed continued support for the Games, despite the critical comments made by his chair, Mr. Williams, and by Mr. Thomas.

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He said native communities across Canada will share in an estimated $150-million in revenues generated by the Olympics, with more than 100 aboriginal businesses working on Games-related activities.

Mr. Joseph said that while the lack of forestry funding for B.C. native communities is an issue, there is still widespread aboriginal support for the Games.

"Next month, Four Host First Nations is going to rock the world at the 2010 Games," he said. "At the Aboriginal Pavilion, we're going to share, showcase and educate about our cultures to visitors from around the world."

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