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Dick Pound apologized Wednesday for using the phrase 'pays de sauvage' in an August interview with a French newspaper. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

One of Canada's most high-profile Olympic officials apologized Wednesday for unintentionally angering First Nations with comments that some interpreted as him calling them savages.

Richard Pound told The Canadian Press Wednesday that he never intended to be derogatory when he used a French-language phrase that was interpreted as calling Canada a "land of savages" 400 years ago.

"I apologize for any unintentional harm that was caused — absolutely," he said. "That was not my intention in any way, shape or form."

Pound made the comments in an August interview with a French-language newspaper about whether China should have been awarded the Olympics because of its human rights record.

He used the phrase "pays de sauvage" when talking about Canada being a young country compared to China.

"That is the term [pays de sauvage] that has been used in French, which means something entirely different than savages in English for close to 400 years," Pound said in an interview.

"It's fallen out of favour now and I probably should have been more alert to the change in vocabulary. It's not derogatory."

Sauvage, in French, can mean either wild or savage.

"It just means that they were societies that to Europeans were in the wilderness," Pound said.

Pound, a former Olympic competitor, a member of the International Olympic Committee and the board of directors for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Vancouver, said this is the first time in his life he's been called a racist and he is disturbed by the allegations.

Some aboriginal groups had called for his resignation from the Vancouver organizing committee and as chancellor of McGill University in Montreal.

McGill University distanced itself from the remarks and B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell had urged an apology.

The complaints didn't surface until earlier this month, when a Quebec-based group sent a letter to the ethics commission of the IOC requesting Pound be sanctioned.

Neither that group nor the Assembly of First Nations Quebec immediately returned calls for comment.

'I'm willing to just go forward'

The B.C. Union of Indian Chiefs and the B.C. Assembly of First Nations this week added their voices to those calling for sanctions against Pound but the Olympic official said he himself had not heard from any of the critics.

"None of these people have ever had the courtesy to call me, first of all, to see whether what was reported was what I actually said and the context was what I meant," Pound said. "Did I really call anybody a savage? No, I didn't."

Squamish Nation Chief Gibby Jacob, who sits with Pound on the 2010 board of directors, said in all his dealings with the man, he'd never considered him to be a racist.

Jacob said the apology was great and to his mind the issue had been put to rest.

"I'm not a small person, I'm willing to accept apologies if one is due," he said.

"Certainly, I imagine there's others that might not but as far as I'm concerned, in my knowledge of him, and his work and that kind of thing, I'm willing just to go forward."

Pound said the allegations trivialize more than a half-century of work he's done both in the Olympic movement to fight against discrimination based on race, politics or gender.

The head of the Vancouver organizing committee said Pound is a good man who made a mistake.

'I'm sure he feels quite badly'

"I'm sure he feels quite badly that this has been interpreted as a reflection on how he feels. I'm quite sure this is not how he feels," said John Furlong in a statement provided to the Canadian Press.

Furlong said Pound has been an advocate for collaboration with First Nations.

"I don't know what the context was, but I would think if the words came out that way he would have regretted it."

Vancouver's Olympic organizers have devoted considerable time and resources into winning the support of the First Nations whose traditional lands play host to the venues and events in 2010.

The four bands have formed an association called the Four Host Nations and each have signed multimillion-dollar legacy agreements with the provincial and federal governments in exchange for supporting the Games.

The director of the Four Host Nations said he hopes the legacy of the Games will be to dispel beliefs about aboriginal heritage.

"What we've been focusing on is ensuring that we use the 2010 Olympics as an opportunity to educate people around the world and even in our own country about not only our cultures and traditions, but where we're going as a people," said Tewanee Joseph.

Jacob said he hopes to have Pound meet with other First Nation chiefs when he next visits Vancouver.