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Olympic torch stokes warm pride and fiery protest among aboriginals

His date with destiny is months away, but 65-year old Chief Wilton Littlechild has already started training for his 300-metre run with the Olympic torch. Undeterred by the prospect of carrying it into the January teeth of an Alberta winter, he couldn't be more pumped.

"It might be cold, but I want to be ready to go," said Chief Littlechild, a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into the tragedy of native residential schools.

"When I grasp the torch, I know I will be feeling the pride of representing my people in the world arena. I'm hyped."

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The veteran chief is among hundreds of aboriginal participants scheduled to brandish the famous flame during its 106-day journey across the country, as 2010 Games organizers strive for an historic, unprecedented role for indigenous people in an Olympic torch relay.

Despite their ambitious goals, however, and the anticipated pride of so many aboriginals running in the relay, not all natives are partaking of the same sweetgrass.

The Penticton Indian Band has been dropped from the original list of torch communities, relay concerns have been raised on the Six Nations reserve in Southern Ontario, and some young native militants see the Olympic trek only as a chance to protest.

"We don't support the Olympics," said Penticton Chief Johnathan Kruger, citing Canada's vote against the UN declaration of indigenous rights, and inequitable distribution of Olympic funding.

After the band outlined its criticism in a letter to relay organizers, the Penticton First Nation disappeared from the official torch route.

Meanwhile, at a recent Six Nations public forum, dozens of Olympic opponents turned up to call for the torch to be spurned by the community.

Pro-Games natives were sufficiently unnerved by the prospect that representatives from each of the Four Host First Nations - on whose traditional territory the Games will take place - travelled from Vancouver, along with their chief executive officer Tewanee Joseph.

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Mr. Joseph said the B.C. contingent was well-received, and that much of the criticism stemmed from issues that had nothing to do with the Games.

Opponents mentioned missing native women on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, sex trafficking, and the galvanizing protest slogan: "No Olympics on Stolen Native Land."

Since the gathering, however, elected chief Bill Montour has been firm that the Olympic torch will travel through the Six Nations regardless of protesters.

"Listening to these people, you'd think the world was falling in because of the Olympics," Chief Montour said in an interview. "They seem to be opposed to everything, including the Lord's Prayer."

He said their opposition ignores the proud history of sport in native culture.

"Tom Longboat [legendary Six Nations long-distance runner]must be spinning in his grave."

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Elsewhere, though, natives remain an integral part of the strident Olympic Resistance Network, which vows to disrupt both the Games and the torch relay.

Aboriginal leaders who support the Olympics are collaborators, according to native Gord Hill of the ORN. "We are determined to oppose the Olympic circus. We are definitely planning to proceed with our actions."

Last week's RBC hiring of Phil Fontaine, former head of the Assembly of First Nations, to help maximize aboriginal participation in the torch relay was a clear sign that past and threatened protests are working, said Mr. Hill.

This kind of talk disheartens the large majority of pro-Olympic native leaders who have welcomed the opportunities provided to aboriginals by the Winter Games.

Chief Littlechild has already seen militants disrupt an Olympic torch event in Toronto earlier this year, and he was present when several aboriginal women dumped a bunch of apples on the podium to protest a speech by Phil Fontaine.

He also saw first-hand the impact of protests by the Lubicon Indians in Alberta to press their land claim fight during the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.

Chief Littlechild's conclusion? Disruptive Olympic protests don't work. "The Lubicon weren't helped by what they did. There was a backlash," he recalled.

"If you are going to protest, you have to do it in a respectful way, so that people listen to you."

Chief Doug Kelly of the Sto:lo Tribal Council in the Fraser Valley, no stranger to calls for strong action on aboriginal issues, agrees:

"You may get media attention and grab headlines, but it evokes anger and promotes ill-will, instead of building public compassion for native issues."

He suggested milder actions such as information booths on the West Coast Express commuter train to bring attention to aboriginal matters.

Besides, he added, the Olympics are establishing native legacies. "We want our young people to believe they are as qualified as anyone else. ... It's a real opportunity to raise our profile."

The Olympic torch will pass through 118 aboriginal communities. A dozen native youths will accompany it along its entire route, and native elders, known as "honorary fire keepers" will provide a special blessing at each aboriginal stop.

As for Chief Littlechild, he has but one wish for his brief turn in the spotlight. "I just hope that the next person I hand the torch to is a young native person. For me, there could be no prouder moment."

His date with destiny is months away, but 65-year old Chief Wilton Littlechild has already started training for his 300-metre run with the Olympic torch. Undeterred by the prospect of carrying it into the January teeth of an Alberta winter, he couldn't be more pumped.

"It might be cold, but I want to be ready to go," said Chief Littlechild, a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into the tragedy of native residential schools.

"When I grasp the torch, I know I will be feeling the pride of representing my people in the world arena. I'm hyped."

The veteran chief is among hundreds of aboriginal participants scheduled to brandish the famous flame during its 106-day journey across the country, as 2010 Games organizers strive for an historic, unprecedented role for indigenous people in an Olympic torch relay.

Despite their ambitious goals, however, and the anticipated pride of so many aboriginals running in the relay, not all natives are partaking of the same sweetgrass.

The Penticton Indian Band has been dropped from the original list of torch communities, relay concerns have been raised on the Six Nations reserve in Southern Ontario, and some young native militants see the Olympic trek only as a chance to protest.

"We don't support the Olympics," said Penticton Chief Johnathan Kruger, citing Canada's vote against the UN declaration of indigenous rights, and inequitable distribution of Olympic funding.

After the band outlined its criticism in a letter to relay organizers, the Penticton First Nation disappeared from the official torch route.

Meanwhile, at a recent Six Nations public forum, dozens of Olympic opponents turned up to call for the torch to be spurned by the community.

Pro-Games natives were sufficiently unnerved by the prospect that representatives from each of the Four Host First Nations - on whose traditional territory the Games will take place - travelled from Vancouver, along with their chief executive officer Tewanee Joseph.

Mr. Joseph said the B.C. contingent was well-received, and that much of the criticism stemmed from issues that had nothing to do with the Games.

Opponents mentioned missing native women on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, sex trafficking, and the galvanizing protest slogan: "No Olympics on Stolen Native Land."

Since the gathering, however, elected chief Bill Montour has been firm that the Olympic torch will travel through the Six Nations regardless of protesters.

"Listening to these people, you'd think the world was falling in because of the Olympics," Chief Montour said in an interview. "They seem to be opposed to everything, including the Lord's Prayer."

He said their opposition ignores the proud history of sport in native culture.

"Tom Longboat [legendary Six Nations long-distance runner]must be spinning in his grave."

Elsewhere, though, natives remain an integral part of the strident Olympic Resistance Network, which vows to disrupt both the Games and the torch relay.

Aboriginal leaders who support the Olympics are collaborators, according to native Gord Hill of the ORN. "We are determined to oppose the Olympic circus. We are definitely planning to proceed with our actions."

Last week's RBC hiring of Phil Fontaine, former head of the Assembly of First Nations, to help maximize aboriginal participation in the torch relay was a clear sign that past and threatened protests are working, said Mr. Hill.

This kind of talk disheartens the large majority of pro-Olympic native leaders who have welcomed the opportunities provided to aboriginals by the Winter Games.

Chief Littlechild has already seen militants disrupt an Olympic torch event in Toronto earlier this year, and he was present when several aboriginal women dumped a bunch of apples on the podium to protest a speech by Phil Fontaine.

He also saw first-hand the impact of protests by the Lubicon Indians in Alberta to press their land claim fight during the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.

Chief Littlechild's conclusion? Disruptive Olympic protests don't work. "The Lubicon weren't helped by what they did. There was a backlash," he recalled.

"If you are going to protest, you have to do it in a respectful way, so that people listen to you."

Chief Doug Kelly of the Sto:lo Tribal Council in the Fraser Valley, no stranger to calls for strong action on aboriginal issues, agrees:

"You may get media attention and grab headlines, but it evokes anger and promotes ill-will, instead of building public compassion for native issues."

He suggested milder actions such as information booths on the West Coast Express commuter train to bring attention to aboriginal matters.

Besides, he added, the Olympics are establishing native legacies. "We want our young people to believe they are as qualified as anyone else. ... It's a real opportunity to raise our profile."

The Olympic torch will pass through 118 aboriginal communities. A dozen native youths will accompany it along its entire route, and native elders, known as "honorary fire keepers" will provide a special blessing at each aboriginal stop.

As for Chief Littlechild, he has but one wish for his brief turn in the spotlight. "I just hope that the next person I hand the torch to is a young native person. For me, there could be no prouder moment."

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