Vancouver Olympics: exploiting the exploited

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With the Vancouver Olympics around the corner in 2010, there has been an increasing momentum in marketing efforts to create the buzz that will capture the attention of the world.

Countries often use the Olympics as a way to express and inform huge populations of people about the country’s history, culture and values.

For this reason alone, the Olympics are one of the most ingenious public relations efforts of all time.

This was most recently displayed in China’s intense, and sometimes odd, efforts to impress.

However, with the event unfolding within our borders, we have to wonder what the story is that we will share.

Canada is a country with a very delicate and complex national identity.

It is a country built upon conquering, both from the British and the French, who destroyed and exploited the native inhabitants.

Bi-cultural identity, witnessed predominantly in the labelling of consumer items like chicken noodle soup or “soup aux nouilles et poulet”, is often the default button for national identification.

This is a story Canadian citizens know all too well: names and words like Jacques Cartier, Métis, Samuel de Champlain, Hudson Bay, Iroquois and that drunk guy named Macdonald pretty much sum up several years of mandatory history class.

For many other Canadians, Canada is an appendage to their country of origin, a safe haven with health care and ample job opportunities where they are able to settle in communities that reflect their culture and lifestyle.

However, the culture that continuously remains on the margins is that of indigenous people.

In 2001, about 1.3 million Canadians claimed to have some Aboriginal heritage, with the largest populations residing in Ontario and British Columbia.

Although Aboriginals were instrumental in the development and understanding of the Canadian environment when first uncovered by Europeans, we often forget to repay the favour.

First Nations people experience a different kind of Canada than the majority of its residents.

The government, in a guise of goodwill, set up reserves for Aboriginal people so they could keep the land they had already owned for centuries, which would also allow them to continue their unique lifestyle and culture.

However, the quality of life in the reserves is far worse than many would like to admit, although Statistics Canada openly divulges this reality.

For example, 14 percent of Aboriginal people live in overcrowded housing compared to the four percent of the general population.

The employment rate for Aboriginal people is almost ten percent below that of non-Aboriginals.

Health problems and education are also an issue in the First Nations community.

Interestingly, it is the Aboriginal culture, which Canadians frequently disregard, that the Vancouver Olympics chooses to exploit to garner appropriate media coverage.

The Vancouver Olympics uses a system of mascots to eat at the hearts of consumers everywhere.
The three cute and cuddly mascots Sumi, Miga and Quatchi all represent First Nations legends unique to the province of British Columbia.

For example, Sumi, meaning “guardian spirit”, dawns the hat of an orca whale with the head of a bear and the body of a thunderbird in order to represent transformation, a common theme of West Coast First Nations legends.

The inukshuk also has the unfortunate legacy of being the logo of the Vancouver Olympics, instead of something unique to the Inuit population of Canada.
The word means “something which acts or performs the functions of a person” and commonly marks important areas of land.

The inukshuk is also present on Nunavut’s flag, as it has become a recognizable cultural symbol for the Inuit.

Unfortunately, the Vancouver Olympics website offers minimal information about the plight of Aboriginals, even as it shamelessly highlights Western appropriations of First Nations culture.

Having the Olympics in Canada could be an opportunity to bring the world’s attention to our doorstep, but all we seem to want to offer are cute characters, fake heritage and the furthering the exploitation of an already over-exploited ethnicity.


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