CALGARY, ALBERTA -- As this northwestern city basks in the limelight of the 15th Winter Olympic Games, supporters of a determined band of Cree Indians are threatening to put a crimp in the image of the white-hat, good-guy cowboy that Calgary is trying to project to a world television audience.
A bitter, 48-year-old battle for land and lucrative oil and timber rights pits the federal and provincial governments against the Indians of Lubicon Lake, in the remote, oil-rich wilds of Alberta about 375 miles north of here. The Indians claim to have a total of 457 members. Their chief, 37-year-old Bernard Ominayak, in his jeans, western shirt, chiseled cowboy boots and black baseball cap, has become a familiar figure for Canadian television audiences.
He regularly assails the authorities for attempting a policy of "genocide," a word that one of his key supporters, the World Council of Churches, also uses to describe the band's plight. Ominayak said the tribe has been forced to depend on welfare when traditional forms of subsistence from hunting and trapping were disrupted by massive oil drilling allowed by the government.
The rancor hardened last August when a tuberculosis epidemic broke out among the band. By November, more than one in 10 members of the band were diagnosed by government nurses as having the disease.
In a hurried attempt to settle the dispute before the Olympics began, the provincial government offered the band 25.4 square miles. But Ominayak rejected that, saying the band was entitled to much more.
The Canadian government has given the Lubicon Lake band more than $1 million over the past two years to pursue their claim -- against the Canadian and Alberta provincial governments -- in the courts and keep the Olympics out of the dispute.
The band did go to court and even filed a complaint with the U.N. Human Rights Commission that is still pending. But the million-dollar government payment did not buy the Indians' silence during the Olympics.
Ominayak and his network of supporters stalked the 11,000-mile pre-Olympics torch relay around Canada. The theme of the torch run, sponsored by the government-owned oil company Petro-Canada, another of the band's foes, was "Share the Flame." The Lubicon Lake band partisans nudged into camera view with signs saying, "Share the Shame."
In Olympic Plaza in Calgary at the end of the torch run, teen-age spectators pelted the Lubicon Lake band protesters with shards of ice as police officers stood idly by. One policeman angrily told a Calgary Herald reporter that he hoped the newspaper would accurately describe the crowd's reaction to "those effing Indians."
Calgary Mayor Ralph Klein erupted in a rage when he talked about the campaign. "I'm offended that they would use Calgary, my city," he said in an interview before the games began. "I have a lot of feeling for Indian people. I speak Blackfoot. I've been adopted by them. I believe the Lubicon dispute is valid. I believe their claim is valid. I would have marched with the Lubicon to Parliament Hill in Ottawa. I would have. Because that's where the problem is. I'm saying we're an innocent victim in all of this."
Western Canadians have ambivalent feelings toward the Indians here. The spectacle of the proud Indian in feathered headdress astride a stallion is a favorite at parades, rodeos and ceremonial pow-wows. Canadians also like to believe that they have been more humane in their treatment of native peoples than their neighbors south of the border.
The Indian heritage is also regarded as important in the mythology of a young country such as Canada, still struggling to develop a distinct identity. "Canadians wrongly think of this country as unformed and without history," External Affairs Minister Joe Clark said at last month's opening of an exhibition of Indian and Inuit artifacts at the Glenbow Museum here. The reality, he said, is that native traditions are "the roots of this country."
But Hugh Dempsey, associate director of the museum, said later in an interview that Canada's handling of the Indians has been "just as bureaucratic, . . . just as bumbling" as the United States'.
The Indian population in southern Alberta around Calgary, which numbered about 15,000 at the turn of the century, fell to 6,000 by the end of World War I. Until the 1960s, Indian children who tried to enroll in Calgary's public schools encountered insurmountable bureaucratic obstacles. "Once you stripped away the veneer of not meeting the legal requirements, it became a straight case of racial discrimination," said Dempsey.
Improved health care has boosted the Indian population in southern Alberta to 25,000 today. There are stories of Indians with white-collar jobs and suburban life styles but they are outnumbered by the failures, the drunks who hang out at what is now Olympic Plaza, the troubled teen-agers on the reservations who commit suicide at alarming rates. A few days after the Olympics began, a 15-year-old teen-ager on a reservation about 150 miles south of Calgary shot himself to death.
A few days before the games, the Alberta government heightened the confrontation with the Lubicon Lake Indians by announcing that it was granting a timber lease to Japan's Daishowa forestry company to construct a huge new pulp mill on land that the Lubicon claim as their traditional hunting grounds. Government officials said the Japanese firm would not cut timber on the 25.4 square miles that Alberta has offered the Lubicon Lake group as a settlement.
Ominayak returned to the band's area to plan his next move. But his supporters here have set up an information booth on the University of Calgary campus where Olympic athletes are housed. Roland Leitner, one of the supporters, said an Austrian rock group that performed in the athletes' village backed the Indians last week. A Toronto writer who received a literary award here here last week endorsed the effort.