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Progressive politics, ideas & culture

January-February 2010

Olympic Countdown: B.C. teachers fight Games’ classroom hype

Raina DelisleWebsite

Vancouver 2010 Anti-Olympic mascot Bitey the Bedbug. Photo by Lotus Johnson.

Vancouver 2010 Anti-Olympic mascot Bitey the Bedbug. Photo by Lotus Johnson.

[This post has been amended, see note below]

They were told to wear red and white, to cheer loudly and smile. They were handed little Canadian flags and instructed to wave them with gusto. “This is an opportunity of a lifetime,” they were told.

Some 540 students at L’École Victor Brodeur in Esquimalt, B.C., where my partner’s daughter is a Grade 4 student, were among the first children to witness the 2010 Olympic torch relay as it roared past their school on day one of the cross-Canada carnival. Their school was one of the first of an estimated 1,000 communities to receive the message of peace and hope Olympic promoters say flickers in the flame.

But first, a message from the sponsors! Before the torch made its appearance, the captive student audience watched a pair of flashy Coca-Cola party trucks crawl by, complete with dancers hopped up on sugar and caffeine, followed by a Royal Bank-branded gas-guzzler. There were no permission slips sent home asking parents to allow their children to be part of this marketing campaign. And there will likely be no lesson in class on corporate sponsorship of the Games.

The students also witnessed a police presence worthy of Beijing 2008. The roll-call at this Celebration of Sport and Culture included hundreds of officers, a helicopter, bomb-sniffing dogs and, as one little boy with a tear-smudged maple leaf on his cheek put it, “men in black.” Some children were frightened by this display of security, but the lesson on militarization at the Olympics will also have to wait.

Later in the classroom, my partner’s daughter asked about the relay’s connection to Nazi propaganda, which we had discussed over breakfast (anyone remember the torch relay’s introduction by the Nazi regime during the 1936 Berlin Games?). Her teacher dismissed her question: while the word “Nazi” does not appear in the educational materials pushed across teachers’ desks by the B.C. government and VANOC, kids canlearn a whole lot about sports like the Nordic combined (a combination of cross-country skiing and ski jumping, in case you were wondering).

In the three years leading up to the Games, the B.C. Liberals have spent an estimated $550,000 on a pro-Olympics education program. The lesson plans were developed by B.C. teachers and are available on the Ministry of Education’s dedicated “Sharing the Dream” website and through VANOC’s educational portal. The IOC requires host countries to develop formal education programs, so it’s no surprise much of the materials are blatant Olympic propaganda. For example, there’s a variety of “mascot education resources” encouraging students to get to know the fictional, First Nations-inspired characters: Miga, the sea bear who loves snowboarding; Quatchi, the sasquatch who dreams of becoming a world-famous goalie; and Sumi, the animal spirit who flies over the Coast Mountains.

What about Bitey the Bedbug, one of the anti-Olympic mascots? Students certainly aren’t learning about his favourite sport, the Downtown Eastside crawl, or the issues to which he’s drawing attention. Students probably won’t learn that some Vancouver housing advocates expected there to be more homeless people than Olympic athletes and officials in attendance by the time the Games open (some estimates range as high as 6,000, up from 1,000 people before the bid began in 2003), and that the city has been backpedaling on its commitment to include 252 low-income housing units in the Olympic Village.

Meanwhile, the province has cut sports grants by $10 million, among them a $130,000 grant to B.C. School Sports, which organizes high school athletic programs across the province. And while teachers spend valuable class time discussing Quatchi’s home in the mysterious forest, students don’t learn about real animals and forests that have been affected by the Olympics: no mention of the thousands of trees that have been cut down and the mountainsides that have been blasted to make way for Olympic venues, or the record number of black bears struck by vehicles along the expanded Sea to Sky Highway.

Students are being bombarded with positive messages about the Games, but they need to see a more balanced picture. They are the ones who will inherit the Games’ legacies, after all—perhaps including financial burdens, restricted civil liberties, and environmental damage. They need to understand what’s going on behind all the razzle-dazzle.

Enter Teaching 2010 Resistance. This volunteer network of youth workers, teachers, and volunteers provides free teaching resources for educators who wish to bring a critical perspective on the Olympics to their classrooms. The materials explore the social, environmental, and economic issues associated with the Olympics and are appropriate for students of all ages. For example, elementary students can learn about grizzly bears and the development of the Callaghan Valley, while secondary students can explore more complex issues like indigenous rights, title, and sovereignty. You’d think the cash-strapped Liberals would welcome some free teaching resources after cutting funding to B.C. schools by more than $118 million this year, but provincial politicians seem more concerned with the smear to their Olympic spirit campaign.

“I don’t think this was right taking all the enthusiasm for the Games away from the children,” Premier Gordon Campbell was quoted as saying. B.C. Solicitor General Kash Heed also lashed out: “Encouraging teachers to use the classroom to recruit kids to break the law, to commit acts of vandalism or to occupy private property, you know even to the extent of sabotaging children’s food, is absolutely and completely unacceptable.”

While Teaching 2010 Resistance has no plans to sabotage food, it certainly doesn’t plan on promoting Olympic sponsors Coca-Cola and McDonald’s in the classroom. And the materials do not advocate breaking the law; rather, they encourage students to become active citizens and stand up for their civil liberties.

At the end of October, Teaching 2010 Resistance had planned a meeting for educators interested in previewing its workshop at Vancouver’s Lord Strathcona Elementary. The event poster featured Dora the Explorer tossing Miga into a garbage can and was available on the website of the Vancouver Elementary School Teachers’ Association (VESTA).

When the media got wind of the event, the Province and the Vancouver Sun—both Canwest dailies and multi-million-dollar sponsors of the Games—published editorials blasting the meeting. “Resistance Workshop Fails Us All; Teachers’ Association Makes Astonishing Decision to Consider AntiOlympic Zealots’ Case,” wrote the Province. “It’s Elementary, My Dear Children: The Olympics are a Sham,” the Sun wrote, sarcasm intended.

After VESTA was slammed in the corporate media for promoting the event, and the Vancouver School Board was questioned for allowing the group to rent a classroom, both capitulated. Teaching 2010 Resistance relocated the meeting and VESTA said it was distancing itself from the group. Ironically, the negative media attention helped promote Teaching 2010 Resistance, and by the beginning of November the group had been in touch with 18 teachers and had presented its workshop to more than 100 students in five classrooms.

After the torch relay, my partner and I took his daughter to the anti-Olympic events that were planned for the same day. We discussed the issues that have demonstrators upset and the things that have supporters excited. We’ve played the “Which mascot are you?” game on VANOC’s website, and we’ve talked through Teaching 2010’s lesson plans. Some days, this smart little nine-year-old wants to be an environmental activist, other days she wants to be an Olympic snowboarder. In the end, it will be her informed decision.

[In response to a reader letter, we re-examined the figure of 6,000 homeless estimated in Vancouver in early 2010. Some housing advocates do indeed place their estimates that high, but reliable figures do not exist. The most recent homelessness survey in Vancouver was in 2008 and counted fewer than 1,600 homeless people in Vancouver, though the study’s authors state that this is undoubtedly an undercount. To reflect this ambiguity, in the online edition of this article we have moved the figure of 6,000 inside parentheses and indicated that it is at the highest end of the estimates out there. Regardless, Vancouver homelessness increased by a shocking 135 percent between 2002 and 2008. ]

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