Is the Canadian Olympic Team on its way to a fashion ‘Dbacle’ in Brazil? The team is slated to wear offerings styled by a fashion label that has recently produced a clothing line themed ‘Dsquaw.’
Dsquaw is the brainchild of high-end designer Dsquared2, founded and operated by Willowdale, Ont., brothers Dean and Dan Caten. In spring 2015, the brothers released their fall/winter collection – Dsquaw – in Milan. As you might expect, Dsquaw clothing traded on Native imagery and designs, and branded it by invoking the image of the ‘squaw,’ perhaps the stereotyping trope of the colonial gaze.
The models sported an array of fancy furs, beads, and patterns meant to evoke some stereotypical ‘Native’ heritage. The complementary presence of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police could be perceived in the colours and military-style duds produced for the collection.
And any lingering doubts about the interpretation of the goings-on on the catwalk were put to rest by the explanation posted on the brothers’ Facebook page: the Dsquaw line, in case you were wondering, fused “the enchantment of Canadian Indian tribes” with “the confident attitude of the British aristocracy.” Can’t say it any fairer than that: confident colonialism encounters the enchantments of the fur-clad Canadian Indian squaw.
The public backlash was as swift as the response from Dsquared2 was underwhelming. The brothers promptly removed the name Dsquaw from their line and scrubbed the incriminating Facebook page. There was no apology and nothing more was done by Dsquared2. It was fashion imperialism writ large.
A year later, on Feb. 11, 2016, the Hudson’s Bay Company signed a contract with Dsquared2 to design Team Canada’s outfits for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. How does it look to have Canada’s major department store, Hudson’s Bay, teaming up with Dsquared2 to produce the outfits that our athletes will wear in Rio? So wondered a CBC reporter, who contacted me for a response to this story. What does it say about the Olympic Games, the corporate sponsors, and their relationship with Indigenous people in Canada?
These are important questions. The Canadian athletes in Rio will wear the outfits in the Opening Ceremonies, on the medal podium (here’s hoping), and in formal interviews. The outfits will occupy the spotlight for the duration of the Games simply because the models – the athletes – are required to wear them. As far as public fashion statements go, there isn’t much of a difference between the catwalks of Milan and the podiums of Rio 2016, except this time billions of people will tune in to watch.
From a business standpoint, the outfits need to make the kind of classy statement that will attract the more high-end consumers in Hudson’s Bay’s new target market, and Dsquared2 is needed to help the Bay solidify their position in that market. Dsquared2, for its part, benefits by securing its foothold in the new ‘athleisure’ industry. It all comes down to the bottom line. The corporate heads and shareholders at Hudson’s Bay don’t appear to be too bothered by Dsquared2’s erstwhile commercial foray into Indigenous imagery, because their partnership will likely mean increased profits.
But who should be responsible for addressing this kind of corporate profiteering?
Where was the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity when this story surfaced? This organization claims responsibility for creating more opportunities and making sport more accessible for girls and women. ‘Being courageous’ is identified on their website as the association’s top value, but on the Dsquaw issue, there was only silence.
What about Athletes CAN, the association that represents the interests of Canada’s high-performance athletes? After all, the association operates an Athlete Social Responsibility program that is based on the claim that “as role models, athlete leaders have a responsibility to society” to engage in “positive action” by “taking a proactive stance on causes” related to sport and broader society. Again, silence.
Some people might say this is a resource issue. Perhaps. Multi-sport organizations, like other non-profits, are suffering from budget cuts that limit what they can and cannot do. Their staff, which usually tops out at one full-time member and maybe two or three part-timers, are overworked and underpaid. They have to scramble for government funding and balance that off with corporate sponsorships just to keep their doors open. This is the new era of sport, one that is increasingly dominated and controlled by corporate dollars. Still, they make choices about which causes are worth supporting, and this says a great deal about whose values, behaviours and experiences are privileged in Canadian sport.
In the end, it was left to Indigenous athletes to offer a public response as to whether Team Canada would be looking good in Rio. Let’s be clear: it was appropriate that CBC called Indigenous athletes to ask their thoughts on the partnership. Too often Indigenous voices are left out of the equation. One respondent, Jesse Cockney, competed in the 2014 Games in Sochi; he is young enough to stand a chance of competing in 2018.
The other, Waneek Horn-Miller, competed in the 2000 Games in Sydney, and now earns her living in sport. She was the Assistant Chef de Mission for Team Canada at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto. Both athletes were acutely aware of the problematic power relations they were being asked to comment on. Horn-Miller put it best when she said, “The athletes have no say. You get what you get, and then you wear it, and that’s what happens.” How were they to respond, with their careers dangling out in front of them?
On Feb. 24, one year after the catwalk fiasco and two weeks after signing with Hudson’s Bay, Dsquared2 finally issued an ‘open apology’ to the “Indigenous Peoples of Canada.” The Hudson’s Bay Company? The Canadian Olympic Committee? Other members of the Canadian sporting community? The silence is deafening.
Janice Forsyth is an assistant professor and former Director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies in the Faculty of Health Sciences. She regularly provides leadership and direction to government and service organizations in sport, as well as insight and commentary for media on Olympic related matters.