On Graham Island, part of the archipelago of Haida Gwaii in Northern British Columbia, sits the village of Old Massett. It is home not only to the Council of the Haida Nation, but also many acclaimed First Nations carvers.
Two years ago, 7idansuu (Edenshaw) James Hart, a master carver and hereditary chief, embarked upon an odyssey that would see the creation of a 55-foot totem called Reconciliation Pole, carved out of a majestic, 800-year-old Haida Gwaii red cedar. The pole was erected in a special ceremony on April 1, 2017 at the University of British Columbia (UBC) on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Musqueam people. Erected in the traditional Haida way using ropes, the totem is located at the future site of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre. The ceremony was preceded by a traditional Musqueam welcome; speakers included residential school survivors, Musqueam and Haida chiefs, and UBC president Santa Ono.
The university partnered with Vancouver arts philanthropist Michael Audain to commission Reconciliation Pole, an acknowledgment of the dark history of Canada’s residential school system. Some 150,000 Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their parents’ care and put into government-sponsored religious schools designed to assimilate them into Euro-Canadian culture. The children endured psychological, physical, and sexual abuse, and an estimated 6,800 of them died. Reconciliation pole was made using exactly 6,800 copper nails, each one representing a deceased child.
The pole honours a time before, during, and after the residential school system (the last school was closed in 1996). At the base (Haida totem-pole narratives begin at the bottom) is a mother bear and her twin cubs, representing a time before Indigenous peoples made contact with Europeans. Between the legs of Bear Mother is sGaaga (Shaman), performing a ritual to ensure the return of the salmon, which symbolize the cycle of life.
Near the centre of the pole is a carved building based on the Coqualeetza Institute residential school in Sardis, B.C. Above that is a group of children representing residential school survivors from across Canada, carved by a variety of Indigenous artists including Zacharias Kunuk, Susan Point, Shane Perley-Dutcher, Philip Grey, Robert Davidson, and Christian White. One child remains unfinished, representing all those who were sent away but never came home. Near the top are two boats, a canoe, and a long boat moving off together, representing reconciliation; the boats hold special meaning for Hart, as they were carved by his son, Carl, who died in 2015 at the age of 26. At the pinnacle of the totem is an eagle poised to take off into the future.