Indigenous-led bid to bring 2030 Olympics to B.C. finds hope as province remains steadfast in rejection

After more than a year’s worth of work, the provincial government announced in October it would not support the Indigenous-led effort to bring the 2030 Olympics and Paralympics to B.C. But the IOC's recently announced delay in naming a host provided hope by granting the Canadian bid the gift of time.

IOC's latest delay in decision on a host city provides gift of time to Canadian effort

Willie Littlechild, centre, is seen above at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton in July. Littlechild, who said sports were an escape for him during 14 years where he was forced to attend residential schools, is a staunch advocate of bringing the Olympics to Canada. (Eric Gay/The Associated Press)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

For 14 years from ages six to 20, Willie Littlechild was forced to attend residential schools.

"Being physically, emotionally, mentally, culturally, spiritually sexually abused throughout that whole term, I found a way out eventually from all of the abuse," Littlechild said in a recent interview with CBC Sports.

"And that was to run to sport. … I believe sports saved my life."

Now 78, Littlechild has dedicated his life to advancing reconciliation through sport. He helped found the North American Indigenous Games, he's been a constant participant in the Canada Games and he was involved with Calgary's failed 2026 Olympic bid. He's also a lawyer and a Cree chief who served as a commissioner to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Littlechild said he was particularly engaged in crafting call to action No. 91, which charges officials and host countries of major sporting events "to ensure that Indigenous peoples' territorial protocols are respected, and local Indigenous communities are engaged in all aspects of planning and participating in such events."

Thus was born the Indigenous-led bid to bring the 2030 Winter Olympics and Paralympics to B.C. But after more than a year's worth of work, the provincial government announced in October it would not support the effort. And just like that, the promising venture seemed to end.

However, the International Olympic Committee announced last week that its decision on a 2030 host would be further delayed beyond the fall of 2023. In the process, it granted the Canadian contingent the gift of time.

"This changes the landscape and really gives us that opportunity to make this the best, most logical bid possible," Canadian Olympic Committee president Tricia Smith told CBC Sports.

In a statement to CBC Sports, B.C.'s ministry of tourism, arts, culture and sport said its decision to decline support "is binding and will not be revisited." The bid group was asking for $1.2 billion in government funding.

"With billions of dollars in direct costs and risks, supporting a 2030 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games bid could jeopardize the province's ability to address the very real pressures facing British Columbians," the statement read.

"Government remains committed to the important work of reconciliation and continuing to build strong relationships with First Nations and Indigenous partners."

The bid group includes the Lil̓wat7úl (Líl̓wat), xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) nations, in addition to the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic committees and the municipalities of Vancouver and Whistler.

Musqueam chief Wayne Sparrow said the provincial government has thus far refused to even sit at the table with the group.

"What I was upset with is showing a lack of respect to the nations about doing it the proper way instead of just informing us that there was going to be a media [conference]," Sparrow said of the province's initial announcement.

Sparrow, seen above in October, said he was disappointed the province wouldn't even come to the table for a discussion about the bid. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

'Uplift through sport'

Littlechild, who isn't an official member of the bid group, said the province's decision would represent a "terrible missed opportunity."

Due to a broken hip at the Canada 55+ Games in Kamloops, B.C., in August, Littlechild was unable to participate in the swimming competition where he's previously won numerous medals. He instead volunteered at the pool, where he helped display an "example of reconciliation."

On each starting block lay an orange T-shirt with the words "Every Child Matters." Two pool lanes were left empty to honour the dead and missing children from the residential school system.

"That emotional race in and of itself spoke loudly that there's different ways and creative ways that we can still continue to uplift through sport," said Littlechild, who added that despite the injury he managed to sneak his own swim in next to one of the empty lanes.

Littlechild said a 2030 bid could inspire the next generation of athletes, too.

"The physical and spiritual, mental and cultural benefits that I've received from sport, I really want to be able to offer that opportunity to other young people, especially Indigenous children and youth that they can succeed at the elite level with the desire to work hard," he said.

Though the province remains steadfast, Smith said the IOC's delay means an immediate meeting is no longer necessary. 

The IOC also emphasized climate change in its statement, a possible boost to the Canadian bid whose aim is to be "climate-positive" — a step beyond the carbon-neutral 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

Smith confirmed that Canada was indeed one of "three interested parties" referred to in the IOC statement, with the other two likely being Japan (Sapporo) and the U.S. (Salt Lake City). All three cities have previously hosted the Winter Olympics, with Vancouver the most recent in 2010.

But all three also face roadblocks. Japan is contending with a bribery scandal emerging from Tokyo 2020. Salt Lake City has publicly indicated its preference for 2034 with Los Angeles locked into the 2028 Summer Olympics.

Possible 2034 pivot

The IOC also said it was considering awarding the Winter Games to the same city for 2030 and 2034. Smith said a pivot to 2034 is something B.C. bid might consider.

"I think everything's now back on the table and we would look at everything and see what makes sense. I think the important thing is that it fits with the priorities of the community," she said.

Sparrow said he was still holding out hope for 2030.

"[I] most likely would say yes [to 2034], but these next few months and some of these discussions need to really take place. …. It's not in our hands anymore," Sparrow said.

But there remains an opportunity for the bid group to recalibrate and present something the province is forced to reconsider. Its initial rejection came just three days after Premier David Eby was confirmed as Premier-designate.

The next step, if the province were to reverse course, would be federal funding.

"I think the federal government is fully in support of it," Sparrow said, "but they kind of played back and forth. The Feds were going, 'We'll come to the table once the province is there. We're in support, but we gotta get the province there first.'"

In any case, the IOC announcement provided a much-needed sign of life for what Sparrow said would be a historic bid.

"In 2010, we got asked kind of like an afterthought, and it came from the IOC to make sure that the Nations were in support. This one here was going to be Indigenous-led. And it would have been the first in the world."

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat.

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