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Interview with No 2010 Olympics activist Harsha Walia

Graham F. Scott

This edition of Verbatim is a transcript of Andrew Wallace in conversation with Harsha Walia of the No 2010 campaign. The original podcast of that interview is available here. Andrew is also joining us as a blog columnist, writing about the intersection of sport and society with Game Theory. The first column appeared yesterday. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes for new interviews every other Monday.

In today’s Verbatim, Harsha Walia talks with Andrew about the present circumstances of the Olympic protest movement on the eve of the Games, and the future of the social organizations that have met and collaborated to critique the event.

Q&A

Harsha Walia: The Olympic resistance network is a network that was established approximately two years ago in Vancouver Coast Salish territories to basically build resistance to the Olympic games. The games were costing $7 billion while public services are being cut. The games have resulted in an approximate 300-fold increase in homelessness in Vancouver’s downtown east side, which is the poorest neighbourhood in Canada.

So there’s a lot of growing discontent around those two issues in particular about the Games. But for us, we also have a much more radical analysis around the Games as a corporate industry, where we’re seeing corporate sponsors getting sweetheart deals. They’re getting bailed out, in the context of the economic recession, as workers are losing jobs – corporate sponsored projects with the Olympic village are getting multi-billion dollar bailouts.

And also, an anti-colonial analysis which is that the Games are being held on unceded Coast Salish territory throughout B.C. and that the Games have provided an even greater impetus for the ongoing theft of native land for development projects like ski resorts.

Andrew Wallace: And can you explain the slogan “No Olympics on Stolen Native Land”

Harsha Walia: Yeah, there are several pieces to it; one is the obvious, which is that the Olympics are taking place on unceded Coast Salish territory.

Andrew Wallace: And can you explain what “unceded Coast Salish territory” means?

Harsha Walia: Coast Salish territory are the indigenous territories that Vancouver is in, so Burrard/Tsleil-Waututh, Squamish, and Lil’wat, which is in Whistler area, and so Coast Salish is actually the anglicized name given to all the different indigenous nations, of which there are many, along the costal area of B.C.

Unceded is the legal reality, let alone the moral reality, that B.C. in particular is all untreatied land. So from a legal perspective B.C. is still unsurrendered indigenous land. There are no treaties that have been signed, with minor exception, in the province of British Columbia. So that’s the specifics of “unceded.” “Stolen” is a much more popular term, which is that all of Canada is stolen land and we all reside on occupied indigenous territories.

So that’s the basis of “No Olympics on Stolen Native Land.” It’s something that VANOC (Vancouver Organizing Committee) and IOC (International Olympic Committee) and all the Olympic elites know because they know that this resistance to the Olympics is so strong in indigenous communities that they have had to create the Four Host First Nations which is basically a native corporate body made up of a few token indigenous people. But Four Host First Nations primarily employs non-native people and it’s a corporation. It’s a business, and so that corporation does not necessarily represent the consent of any of the indigenous people. It’s just called the Four Host First Nations, but some of the Indian Act chiefs – and as we know the Indian Act system is a colonial system that particularly facilitates the selection of chiefs that are in line with the government agenda.

So it’s something that they know very well, the government elite and VANOC know very well, and that’s why they’ve tried to have the Four Host First Nations as a façade of native consent to the Games. That’s why “No Olympics on Stolen Native Land” really foregrounds and highlights the fact that the Four Host First Nations certainly does not represent all indigenous people and that there’s a groundswell of indigenous resistance from urban to rural communities.

Andrew Wallace: And since we’re talking about the Four Host, on the website you said or someone said, “They’re either ignorant of the issues, or greedy.” Which is a fairly harsh critique. What is the bone contention with Four Host, because it does represent some.

Harsha Walia: I don’t know about the ignorant or greedy comment, and it’s not even about specific individuals, although specific individuals come to light. Phil Fontaine for example, who is the former Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations and through the AFN gave grand consent to the Olympic games is now a formal advisor to the Royal Bank of Canada and is working closely with corporate interests.

The Royal Bank of Canada is the most devastating, finance is the most devastating industrial project on the planet. Which is affecting primarily indigenous people. The issue in terms of the Four Host First Nations is to highlight the fact that, first of all, no body of people represents all indigenous people. Native 2010 resistance or indigenous resistance doesn’t claim to represent all native people so certainly Four Host First Nations cannot claim all native people

Andrew Wallace: What are the larger goals of this. Clearly, the way you’re speaking and the vocabulary you’re using goes beyond just the Olympics. It seems part of a larger social movement. So what does ORN want to achieve?

Harsha Walia: I think that is really important because a lot of what we get [from people] is that “yeah, well the Games are coming anyway.” So for us it’s like “yeah we’re going to do our best to make sure the Games don’t happen entirely without a hitch.” That everyone who comes to this town and international media and people in this city and people in this province know that the effects of these games are not all positive.

In fact they’re only positive for real estate developers and the corporate and government elite. (We want to) do our best to try to engage people with why the Olympic games and the Olympic industry are negative. But much beyond that, our goals around protesting, disrupting, boycotting, all of those – and educating about the Olympic games are about building strength for social movements in the long term.

Seeing how things like the Games are rooted in processes of capitalist exploitation and things like exploitation of labour, ongoing colonial extraction of resources on indigenous land, environmental degradation, militarization, $1 billion in security.

The Olympic games facilitates this police state for Canada, so it’s seen as this moment of exception where “oh my got let’s spend off this money” because we’re so worried about a terrorist attack. In many ways it’s no different than all these Western States who use fear mongering to spend billions of dollars to fortify a military police state. So all of these kinds of things are going to be here after the Olympics are gone.

One thing that we’re very much aware much aware of, we’re anti-Olympics, but we see this as a struggle that is going to continue beyond the Olympics. Homelessness will still be on our streets after the Games are gone. We’re still going to be in debt after the Games are gone. All the CCTVs, closed circuit television cameras are going to be here when the Games are gone.

Andrew Wallace: What you call a “Police State,” can you give examples of, and explain, what do you mean by that term? How does it become a police state?

Harsha Walia: For me, the police state that we’re seeing is an encroaching police state. There are many of us who would argue we already live in a police state, particularly for people who are the most marginalized or people who live in poverty, people who live on the streets, folks of colour, etcetera. But increasingly in British Columbia, we’re seeing this police state affect everybody.

Attacks on civil liberties, so to give some examples: in Vancouver bylaws are being passed that greatly restricts basic freedom of speech. There are signage bylaws, some of which because of public opposition are now being turned. But things like saying you can’t have any anti-Olympic signs in your doors or you can’t wear anti-Olympic t-shirts. If there’s an anti-Olympic sign in your window you could get fined $10,000, all these kinds of crazy bylaws that really affect basic civil liberties and freedom of speech.

There was an elderly gentleman who clipped out something that pissed him off about the Olympics, a budgetary expense because there is so much money being sunk into the Olympics, and he sent it to his MLA and the next day he had the Vancouver integrated security unit at his door asking him questions.

So part of this police state is that as part of the Olympics we have this Vancouver Integrated Security Unit, which is RCMP, CSIS and the Vancouver Police Department who have basically tasked themselves to spend vast amounts of money to basically interrogate people who are opposed to the Olympics. This includes people like this gentleman, to people who are much more active in an activist role.

So we’ve had a Vancouver Integrated Security Unit visit the homes and work places of at least 60 activists without arrest warrants, without any real basis for a visit. They basically want to interrogate and intimidate people, in violation of their basic civil liberties.

Andrew Wallace: You work here, in the downtown east side, and these are the people — the worry is — who will feel that effect the most. So on a day-to-day basis, have you seen it, just walking the streets and talking to people? What are the stories that you’re hearing?

Harsha Walia: Absolutely, you’d be hard pressed to walk in the downtown east side and find anyone who supports the Olympics. The primary reasons for that are that one, people are directly experiencing homelessness and whether or not it’s directly traceable to the Olympics the reality is those are the facts. You know, a 300 per cent increase in homelessness and a housing crunch ballooned in this neighbourhood. Second of all, an increase in criminalization of poor people. We’re seeing an increasing number of cops on the streets; there are beat cops who just patrol the streets everyday. People are given tickets for ridiculous things, so you get a bylaw ticket for $60 if you spit on the street. If you Jaywalk you get a ticket, you know these things don’t happen in other neighbourhoods, even though these bylaws are technically on the books, they’re only enforced in this neighbourhood.

Andrew Wallace: How do you achieve change in a more concrete way besides just building the analysis, is there anything that ORN is planning on doing, or is doing?

Harsha Walia: The gauge of success is not just been whether or not we stop the Games, I think there gauge of success is multi-fold: One, is just being able to strengthen our social movements because there is going to be a long-term impact of the kind of work that we do and I think there has been successes.

So for example, there have been some housing victories that have been won in this neighbourhood. There’s certainly not enough, but they have only come because of resistance to the Games and the increasing amount of poverty and homelessness as a result of the Games in the downtown east side.

Some of the changes that we’ve seen in response to some of the bylaws that I was mentioning, the proposed bylaws affecting civil liberties have come because of resistance to the Games. So I think it builds a spirit of vigilance at a basic level for people to be vigilant about the kinds of things that are being passed by the government and the impact of corporations on our society. A greater number of British Columbians, at varying levels, are much more critical and skeptical of these kinds of things and that’s the first step to building a more politicized consciousness and action.

Andrew Wallace: It seems largely, the public debate around things like the Olympics is just in two very extreme absolutes, you’re either for the Games and everything that comes with it, or you’re not.

Harsha Walia: I don’t know if that’s true. I think it was true for a long period of time, but we’re increasingly seeing people who are just discontented with the Games and they may not be opposed to the Games in the sense that we as activists are where we also have these other kinds of analysis. Recent polls suggest that upwards of 40 – 50 percent of British Columbians think that the Games are bad for B.C. from an economic perspective. So they don’t necessarily have a social justice perspective, they have an economic perspective and at least have the analysis that the Games don’t benefit ordinary British Columbians. Part of that is the recession, but not just that, even prior to that we were seeing this small emergence.

Andrew Wallace: So you’ve seen a transformation in their thinking:

Harsha Walia: Yeah, I think so, and polls would indicate the same. So everywhere from small merchants and small businesses that feel impacted by the Games because large corporate sponsors are getting contracts and advertising space. I think there is generally, increasingly a sense that the Games are an industry and that there really is no benefit of the Games for ordinary British Columbians, which was the whole ideology of the Games, was that the Games benefit everybody.

Andrew Wallace: So after the Games, what happens to ORN? What do you guys do? Because the Games are going to happen.

Harsha Walia: Yeah, the Games are going to happen. We’re going to do our best to make sure the Games don’t go as smoothly as they would like. After the Games I’m sure part or our time and our resources will go into legal defense. We can expect massive, massive police oppression during the Games. There’s no reason to believe Vancouver will be any exception to prior Olympic games. And again, $1 billion going into security measures, already a huge amount of police surveillance and intimidation of activists, so there’s no doubt there will be a lot of people suffering from police oppression.

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