Reconciliation totem travels from B.C. to Montreal

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Charles Joseph was 13 years old when he left residential school for good.

“When I got home my grandparents took my residential school clothes and burnt them in front of me. They told me, ‘That’s not you,’” Joseph said emphatically. “They brought my regalia, put it on me, and said, ‘This is who you are.’ Then they took me out to the forest and taught me how to heal through cultural practices – singing, dancing and carving.”

Joseph, a Kwakwaka’wakw of the Ma’amtagila band on northern Vancouver Island, is the carver of the 55-foot totem pole that will stand in front of Montreal’s Musée des beaux arts on Sherbrooke Street for the next six months. The pole, owned by a private collector in Ontario, was erected May 1. Weighing four tons, it is carved out of a single red pine from Vancouver Island.

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The totem’s 4000-kilometre journey is symbolic of Joseph’s intent to connect east and west in the process of reconciliation. “I’m telling my healing story through the pole,” Joseph told the Nation. “I want all of Canada, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to know that we all got hurt by this. Now it’s time for us to all heal together.”

It took Joseph over a year to carve and paint the pole, occasionally working for 18 hours straight. “One day it took seven hours just to turn it,” he said.

Nonetheless, Joseph hesitates to say that his artwork is… work. “We are a cultural people. We have different ways of healing than ‘Here take a pill,’” said Joseph. “It doesn’t matter how long it takes if it feels good in my heart. It’s about healing.”

Among the mythical figures carved into the pole are the Patron’s family, Cedar Ring, Wild Woman with Two Children, Killer Whale, Raven, Bear, Arctic Fox and Kulus. Two of the symbols, the Raven and Kulus, represent the positive and negative aspects of the church.

The Raven is flanked by a nun and a priest and represents the negative. “The Raven doesn’t like to be honest about things. He likes to play games,” explained Joseph. “That’s the government worker, the Indian agent, the staff members of the residential school, the priests and the nuns. None of them were who they were supposed to be. They dressed up like good people, but they were really something else.”

The Kulus represents the positive aspects of the church. “The wings will be out there, like a cross,” said Joseph. “The cross is there, because many of my family members are Christian. They use the church for service and for death and believe it’s good for them.”


The totem pole was brought to Montreal in celebration of the city’s 375th anniversary. A celebration that coincides with a hotly debated topic in Indigenous circles – Canada 150. “People ask me what I think about Canada’s 150th birthday. I say, that’s theirs, we’ve been partying for thousands of years,” joked Joseph. “Let them enjoy theirs, ours is way beyond that.”

And while the museum has its own reasons for displaying the pole, Joseph sees it as a way to honour and reconnect with other First Nations. “Before it got here we did a ceremony with the Mohawk people and my family in an acknowledgement each other,” said Joseph. “Hopefully, through the pole, people will understand the healing story that’s not just mine, but everyone’s.”

In closing, Joseph wanted to acknowledge the passing of a mentor and legend in the Northwest Coast tradition, the legendary carver Beau Dick.

“It was such an honour to learn from Beau. As soon as he’d call I’d go because he was such a great teacher. I almost cancelled this because of his unexpected passing,” Joseph lamented. “But Beau’s favourite saying was – the show must go on. Because of that alone I’m here, and I thank him for being in my life.”

A ceremony was held on May 3 to honour the traditional territory of the Mohawk and dedicate the pole to reconciliation.

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