BRITISH COLUMBIA

Chief calls on RCMP to sort out allegations against former Olympic chief

09/28/2012 03:19 EDT | Updated 11/28/2012 05:12 EST
VANCOUVER - Allegations of abuse against the man who was at the helm of the Vancouver Olympic Games have circulated for years in the rural northern British Columbia community where John Furlong was a phys-ed teacher decades ago, the chief of the community says.

The accusations have led to duelling threats of legal action from Furlong, who has flatly denied the allegations, and the reporter whose story in a Vancouver weekly newspaper caused a media storm.

Former students came forward to say the former gym teacher slapped and kicked them, hurled verbal abuse and strapped them with a yard stick. One woman told CBC News that she has recently recovered memories of sexual abuse.

But in the remote community of the Lake Babine Nation, 1,000 kilometres north of Vancouver, the controversy is not new. The man who gave daily news conferences as the world watched the 2010 Games was a man well-known to them.

"All throughout the Olympics, I kept hearing from former students, 'This is the guy who did this to me, and look at him, right up there,'" Chief Wilf Adam of the Babine Nation told The Canadian Press.

"He was a mean person. What I saw at Immaculata, he used to slap the students, either boy or girl, and kick them in the ass, and sometimes kick them in the front side."

A Carrier Sekani tribal official who did not want to be named said he'd heard allegations over the years from various people, but it wasn't just Furlong.

"The abuse was widespread. That was kind of the norm, I guess," said the official. "I think it was a widespread, accepted practice to abuse kids."

Furlong is unequivocal.

"I categorically deny absolutely any wrongdoing and I believe that the RCMP in looking into this matter will discredit the complaint entirely because it just did not happen," he told reporters.

He said he is suing the reporter and the newspaper, the Georgia Straight.

Furlong and his lawyer said Thursday they would make no further comment on the matter and telephone calls to both men for a response to this article were not returned.

Furlong does not deny that he spent time at two schools in northern B.C. prior to his emigration from Ireland in 1974.

He arrived at Immaculata Catholic School in 1969. It's unclear when he left — the Catholic Archdiocese in Prince George will not provide any information — but in his autobiography he mentions two years of teaching experience. He also taught at Prince George College, which became O'Grady Catholic High School. Both schools have long since closed.

The Immaculata Catholic School was not an Indian residential school. Students attended by day, and non-native students did attend the school. However it was a religious school run by the Oblates, a missionary order whose primary goal was to spread religious doctrine among non-Christians around the world.

To that end, the Oblates formed the Frontier Apostolate, described by Catholic Missions of Canada as a volunteer corps 4,000-strong over four decades who devoted a year or more of their lives to staffing the mission schools in Canada's northwest.

By 1974, Furlong was back in Ireland, where the book says he was approached by a recruiter for a high school in Prince George, B.C.

Bill Beatty's family picked up a teenaged Furlong from the airport and brought him back to Burns Lake, and the two quickly became the best of friends. Beatty's younger sister went to Immaculata, and he and the tall Irish athlete played several sports together.

"We all grew up with the strap present in the school so hitting a child, corporal punishment, it wouldn't surprise me because it was the norm at the time but allegations of personal abuse with John, frankly I would find ludicrous," said Beatty, an adjunct professor of leadership studies at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C.

Certainly there was racial tension at times in the community, Beatty said, but he doesn't recall that being an issue for Furlong.

"John had come straight out of Ireland and he was there because of his commitment to young people and to the Catholic Church. He knew he was coming to a First Nations community," he said. "He was there to help."

Bullying and abuse were just not in character for Furlong, he said..

"Whether it was 1968 or 2012, abuse is abuse. And if a person was being abused, you knew it," he said.

"Frankly, for me it's just a little absurd that John, of all people, would be accused of this."

Furlong said this week he's proud of his time in the north. Indeed Tewanee Joseph, former CEO of the Host First Nations Secretariat of the Games, said he was aware of Furlong's history in northern B.C. as they toured the province ahead of the Olympics.

"Definitely I was aware of that," Joseph said Friday.

He and Furlong visited Burns Lake and other northern communities, and it was clear he had connections there, Joseph said, and the tours were without incident.

In contrast to allegations that a young Furlong referred to students as "good for nothing Indians," Joseph said he felt Furlong was very supportive of aboriginal involvement in the Games organization.

"They're definitely serious allegations that I think should go through the proper legal authorities, investigating it properly," Joseph said.

Adam made the same appeal Friday, calling on RCMP to conduct a thorough investigation.

The community appreciates Furlong's work on the Games, but "strongly believes there are serious longstanding issues from the past that must be addressed," said a statement from the band.

"An RCMP investigation must bring the truth of what happened in the past to the full light of day for all to see," Adam said. "The necessary steps must be taken, so we can put this issue to rest."

The RCMP said Thursday they are investigating all the allegations made in the matter.

The community is still reeling from a fatal mill explosion in January that left deep wounds.

"The serious allegations concerning John Furlong are coming into full public focus at a time when people already feel overwhelmed," Adam said in the statement.

On Thursday, Adam said in an interview he was one of Furlong's students.

"When he started off, when he came from Ireland, they put him at Immaculata school at Burns Lake, and from what I've seen, he was very mean with the kids," Adam said.

"I saw it, I saw him kicking students in the butt really hard. He did that to me at Prince George College.

"A couple of students he slapped really hard in the face and kicked them in the ass. I can't remember the name of the guy, a young kid, he kicked him in the front side, right in the crotch. He (the student) went down."

Corporal punishment for students wasn't outlawed in B.C. until 1973, and it was common practice in many schools.

Physical and emotional abuse was deeply ingrained in the Indian residential school system, and First Nations leaders say there were few differences between the staff approach at residential schools and the day schools run by religious organizations.

Yet Adam said Furlong stood out even in the Catholic school environment.

"He was more brutal than the others," he said.

Ronnie Alec said Furlong was his phys-ed teacher and he remembers playing basketball.

"When we make a mistake, he comes after us in a bad way, get slapped on the head or kick us from behind. I tell you, he was a mean person, and we didn't expect a P.E. teacher to be like that at Immaculata," said Alec, 54.

But it wasn't just Furlong, he said.

"The other teachers were, the nuns that we had, were same thing as — you know, we used to go to school from here, -35C or -37. If we missed by five minutes, they wouldn't let us in, they'd locked us out, and we walked all the way back in that cold weather."

He remembers being taken down to the boiler room to get the strap, "with leather, five times, six times, and sometimes with a ruler with our hands facing downwards up to the knuckle."

Like others, Alec was upset that Furlong didn't mention his time in Burns Lake in his autobiography released after the Winter Games.

"I was really upset about that... I looked at his book and he never mentioned Burns Lake not even once," Alex said.