When the provincial government opened a new visitors centre at Peace Arch Park in November 2008, there was one element missing.
As Semiahmoo First Nation councillor Joanne Charles explained to dignitaries at a ceremony at the park Friday morning, the old centre had been the site of a ‘replica’ of a traditional Haida totem pole since the 1950s.
But, as Charles related, the pole had been “ripped out from its base” and cast aside during the building of the new centre.
Reclaimed by SFN, the ‘grizzly bear’ pole – long a landmark symbol of First Nations heritage for visitors crossing the international border from the U.S. into Canada – had languished for a decade while, Charles said, she and other SFN leaders and elders, including her mother and aunt, had cared for it and attempted to persuade the provincial government to restore and raise it again.
With Friday’s ceremonial raising of the restored pole at a new site – the park’s flower garden – Premier John Horgan said his government was addressing a “historic wrong” as a symbol of the reconciliation process.
“There was no ceremony when the pole first went up, there was no respect when the pole was brought down, and, on behalf of the province of British Columbia I want to apologize to all of those who were involved,” Horgan said, noting he would make a formal apology in the legislature once it reconvenes.
“Acknowledging the wrongs of the past is key to moving forward with reconciliation, and setting a new path of respect and partnership,” Horgan said.
Then he and SFN Chief Harley Chappell (Xwopokton) stood side-by-side to help haul on the ropes that raised the totem again.
Prominent in the ceremony and celebration – which included traditional singing, drumming and dancing, and ceremonial ‘blanketing’ of those instrumental in bringing the project to fruition – were members of the Haida Nation, including president Peter Lantin, Kwakwaka’wakw Nation hereditary chiefs Bill Cranmer and David Mungo Knox (great-grandson of the pole’s carver, the late Mungo Martin).
As speeches related, the pole – a replica of a traditional totem from the village of Skedans in Haida Gwaii – had originally been carved according to Haida traditions by a respected Kwakwaka’wakw carver Martin, on a commission from the Royal British Columbia Museum.
For reasons now unclear, it was raised at the old Peace Arch visitors centre, but without any ceremony respecting First Nations tradition.
By contrast, Friday’s re-raising of the pole – preserved and repainted by art expert Andrew Todd – was conducted in accordance with Semiahma, Kwakwaka’wakw and Haida culture and traditions, and, as speakers noted, symbolized the co-operative solidarity of First Nations.
Cranmer pointed out that Martin’s work is highly valued today for its significant role in preserving and continuing Haida culture.
“If it wasn’t for Mungo Martin, we wouldn’t be able to do this important work, the ability to carry on with our ceremonies,” he said. “He hung on to Indigenous culture when it was illegal, so we have a lot to be thankful for.”
In his remarks, Lantin – speaking on behalf of all the Haida nations – thanked Charles for “her tenacity in getting this good work done.”