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'The canoe is parked': First Nations, partners express disappointment after province squashes Olympic bid

First Nations and COC leaving door open to further discussions with province
Whistler Village Olympic rings
The Olympic rings in Whistler Village.

"I think I would have been OK if this decision was made with all of us in the room. But that didn't happen. So, for me, for our Nation, you know, this is 10 steps backwards in reconciliation."

That was the message Jen Thomas, elected Chief of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation had for B.C.'s government after Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport Minister Lisa Beare announced Thursday the province would not support bringing the 2030 Olympic and Paralympic Games back to B.C., effectively squashing the bid. The COC previously confirmed its feasibility team had been informed about the government's decision earlier this week, about 10 months after the Four Host First Nations signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Resort Municipality of Whistler and City of Vancouver to begin exploring a bid. 

As a matter of policy, the federal government does not underwrite major sporting event deficits, meaning it is up to host provinces to serve as guarantors.

"Truly, if we don't get the provincial, federal government in the canoe ... that canoe is, we would say, parked," confirmed Wilson Williams of the Squamish Nation during a media briefing in Vancouver on Friday morning.

"The omission of support from the governments would kill the bid," Williams continued, "But we're saying that we're still here to have that conversation. We want meaningful dialogue. If we want true reconciliation, we need to be in the room talking ... as an equal voice."

Leaders from xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) First Nations, the Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC) and the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) joined Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton for the hour-long briefing, held at the BC Sports Hall of Fame in response to the province's decision. 

COC president Tricia Smith said she was saddened to receive word from the B.C. government, recalling a meeting with Premier John Horgan last fall where the group asked if the province would be open to hearing results of the feasibility work. 

"I remember he joked if we included lacrosse on ice, he was in," Smith said. "We had that positive response from the premier, so we got on with it, we got to work. We knew this opportunity would be important, but I don't think even we realized how impactful it could be," particularly in terms of reconciliation.

The Indigenous-led aspect of the bid-exploration process "far exceeded" any expectations Whistler's mayor had prior to signing the MOU, he told reporters Friday. 

"This has been an incredibly inspiring process for me personally and I think for the people in our community who had the opportunity to be involved," Crompton said. "I feel like at the end of this process I find myself inspired by people I have the opportunity to work with and learn from and become deep friends with and I'll be grateful for that ... it's been a privilege."

Throughout Friday's briefing, proponents of the Indigenous-led bid repeatedly framed the province's decision to withhold support as a direct hit to reconciliatory efforts. The idea to bring the Games back to B.C. fell in line with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Call to Action No. 91, which implores officials and host countries of international sporting events, like the Olympics, Pan Am, and Commonwealth games, for example, to ensure Indigenous peoples' territorial protocols are respected, and local First Nations communities are engaged in all aspects of these events' planning.

"When I talk about reconciliation, I think that other arms of the government can learn a lot off Whistler and Vancouver," said Chief Wayne Sparrow of the Musqueam First Nation. "When they say reconciliation and they talk about it, they put the work in to try to achieve it."

Without an opportunity to sit down and negotiate with the province ahead of Thursday's announcement, "true reconciliation was never acted upon," noted Williams. "We were were suffocated from a true colonial process."

Plus, as Smith added, "This is a responsible bid. This is a Games where we're building on the legacy of 2010. The venues are already there, we're only upgrading venues for future generations. The Nations have taught us we have to think about what we're doing today for the seven generations beyond us. The only thing we would be building is housing."

The feasibility team submitted a proposal to the provincial government in August, reportedly asking for $2.12 billion from governments in cash and in-kind funding in 2022 dollars. Half of that would have come from the feds and 35 per cent from B.C., which also would have been responsible for any deficits. 

In Beare's statement, she acknowledged the province's responsibility to weigh the benefits, costs and risks that could stem from hosting the Games. "There are billions of dollars in direct costs, and potential guarantee and indemnity liability risks on this project that could jeopardize our government’s ability to address pressures facing British Columbians right now," she said. 

Plus, “planning and hosting an event of this magnitude requires significant attention and resources," Beare added, citing B.C.'s existing commitments to hosting the Invictus Games in 2025 and the FIFA World Cup the following year.

But in terms of those two major events, the four First Nations involved in the 2030 bid exploration aren't necessarily at those tables either, Williams said. "We need to be a voice but also have that strategic planning and have that comfort of being in the room to plan to host the world that is coming for these games—the games that will take place throughout our traditional territories," he said.

Sparrow, meanwhile, offered one glimmer of hope for a re-ignition of bid talks down road, pointing toward the province's reconsideration of the now-confirmed FIFA World Cup after it initially declined support. "I'm hoping it's not too late," he said.

Added Smith, "[Vancouver has] a new mayor, we have a new premier. Let's get together in a room and talk about this, talk about the possibilities before the page is turned. We need all partners at the table."

In a statement issued Friday, the COC and CPC said that while the outcome isn't the one they were hoping for, "there is no denying that the work done so far has been truly transformational. We have set a new precedent for putting reconciliation at the heart of major event planning in this country."

- With files from Bob Mackin