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Lisa Song | Mar 04, 2010 03:37 PM

Quatchi is a bearded, earmuff-loving sasquatch. He was one of the official mascots of the 2010 Winter Olympics, part of a trio that included Miga, a mythical sea bear sporting a serious cowlick, and Sumi, an animal spirit with furry feet and thunderbird wings. All three were inspired by the legends of four of Canada's First Nations (Lil'wat, Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh), the official co-hosts of the games.

It was the first time that aboriginal people had a serious role as Olympic hosts. Aboriginal culture was featured prominently in the Opening Ceremony. An Aboriginal Pavilion drew 14,000 visitors a day with its showcase of artwork, music, and history. And the Olympic medals were designed by Corrine Hunt, an aboriginal artist who incorporated traditional orca whale and raven motifs into her work.

British Columbia has a total of 203 First Nations, but the four host First Nations were singled out because the Olympics were held on their traditional lands. As the Winnipeg Free Press reported,

Helping the four host First Nations with the Olympic legacy are cash payments from the federal and provincial governments ranging between $20 million and $30 million each.

Since 2003, aboriginal businesses have received $56.7 million in contracts (for construction, artwork etc.), a 2010 Aboriginal Youth Legacy fund has benefited by more than $56,000 and 96 First Nations artists from across the country have been used to produce permanent art as part of the Venues Aboriginal Art Program.

Tewanee Joseph, executive director of the four host First Nations' Olympics organization, saw the Games as a launching point for Canadian Aboriginals.

"I think the legacy will really be (for) us to carry it forward and new relationships to addressing the things like poverty and suicide and other things," Joseph said (in the Winnipeg Free Press). "If we come together on a world stage like this, we can tackle those challenges and I think we can contribute more significantly to this country."

Not everyone agreed with Joseph's optimistic outlook. Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, boycotted the Vancouver Games altogether. "It's so hard for me to celebrate," says Phillip. "I've been involved in indigenous politics for 35 years, and I've witnessed this poverty firsthand."

He recites, from memory, a list of the social and economic problems that plague aboriginal society: unemployment rates are as high as 90 percent; over half the children in government care are indigenous; rates of HIV and incarceration for aboriginal youth are increasing as the rates for non-aboriginal youth are declining.

With so many problems yet to be solved, Phillip doubts the Olympics will provide the First Nations with much of an "economic springboard." However, he thinks the media attention will lead to greater awareness of the poverty of aboriginal people; and for that, he is grateful.

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