December 22, 2009 10:08 am

Olympic torch relay takes detour as natives protest in Ontario

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GRAND RIVER, Ont. – It was a joyous Olympic torch celebration in Six Nations of the Grand River Monday night despite earlier anxiety over protests hindering the spirit of the event.

More than a thousand people gathered at the local bingo hall, waving Six Nations flags in support of the flame being passed through their community, about 90 kilometres southwest of Toronto.

Earlier in the day, the relay route was altered amid growing anticipation of conflict with protesters.

Instead of being carried through the town, as was the original plan, the flame was passed by the 25 Six Nations torchbearers doing laps on the path leading up to the bingo hall where possible protests easily could be contained.

The roads surrounding the event were blocked and Six Nations police patrolled the area.

“This is really exciting,” said 12-year old torchbearer Caytlen Burning.

A resident of Six Nations, Burning excels at running mid-distance races and is an Olympic hopeful, herself. “I’ve always wanted to go to the Olympics and this is encouraging me to follow my dream,” she said.

For Phyllis Bomberry, 67, a former softball player who grew up in Six Nations, the flame represents unity in athletics.

“You play sports and it doesn’t matter if you’re black, orange, white, it doesn’t matter – you’re together,” Bomberry said.

Bomberry was recently inducted into the Canadian Softball Hall of Fame, and won a gold medal at the first Canada Games in 1970.

At a news conference Monday afternoon, Six Nations Parks and Recreation director Cheryl Henhawk said the change of route was to make sure the flame was successfully carried through the community, and to ensure the safety of the torchbearers and spectators.

“There are people in this community who want to see it (the flame),” Henhawk said. “We need a different venue to make this work.”

Six Nations Chief Bill Montour alluded to the momentous nature of the event. “This is history. This is where we show the world what Six Nations is about,” he said.

Protesters arrived outside of the news conference at a local recreation centre with banners reading “No torch no trespassing.”

“It’s a victory that we have the power to get our voice out there, to change those plans. It is a victory,” Melissa Elliott, a front person for the resistance, said of the change of venue.

Elliott said she is protesting the Olympics as a call to fair treatment of aboriginal people in Canada.

“We are a nation of people. Canada is refusing to recognize our treaties and our sovereignty,” she said.

Six Nations torchbearer, Justice Harry Laforme said the issues being brought forward through the protests are “legitimate.”

Born and raised on a reserve, the 63-year-old Mississauga native said he grew to realize the voice of aboriginal peoples is not easily heard, so he understands why many protesters chose international events to raise awareness of their concerns.

But, he said, an event such as the Olympics has the ability to bring people together, differences aside.

“I look at it (the Olympics) as an opportunity to demonstrate to the international community and to Canada, that we’re part of (this country), and we believe in respect, equality and acceptance.”

The torch relay was briefly delayed last Thursday in Toronto when hundreds of protesters filled the streets shouting, “No Olympics on stolen native land.”

The land claim issue has been a sensitive one in Six Nations. Located about 20 minutes southwest of Hamilton, the area has the largest population of all First Nations in Canada.

Earlier in the day, the flame exited Niagara Falls and passed through such communities as Chippawa, Fort Erie, and Caledonia.

As Tracy Phelps waved the torch proudly from Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls on Monday morning, the spirit of the moment wasn’t lost on her friends and family who came out to support her.

“It not only brings us together to celebrate sport, but people and relationships,” said Mark Cushing, a longtime friend of Phelps.

A light snow fell as hundreds whooped and waved flags beneath the majestic steel bridge connecting Niagara Falls, Ont., and Niagara Falls, N.Y., across the Niagara River.

“It was unbelievable, with the falls in the background, knowing my friends and family were all here,” said Phelps, who was born and raised in Niagara Falls.

“It (the torch) makes everyone feel like a champion.”

Phelps’ mom, dad, sister and a large group from her church were out in the early morning hours to cheer her on.

“She deserves this,” said Sue Ferrier, who attends the same church as Phelps. “She’s an all-around great person between her commitment to sports and her way of life. She’s such an example to young people.”

A youth pastor at a local church, and a volunteer basketball coach at a nearby high school, Phelps, 40, who is also a basketball player, is known in Niagara as a community mentor to kids of all ages.

“I’m proud of her. She’s an awesome person,” said 12-year old April Cianfagna, who has been taught by Phelps at her church. “She’s a person I feel good about.”

The torch relay was to pause Monday night in nearby Brantford, Wayne Gretzky’s hometown.

The flame’s unprecedented 45,000 kilometre trek will conclude in Vancouver at the start of the Olympic Games on Feb. 12.

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