Semiahmoo First Nation councillor Joanne Charles unveils cedar poles to be carved by Leonard Wells.

Totem project launched at Earl Marriott

Semiahmoo First Nation, school and school district collaborate on symbolic poles

It was a welcoming ceremony for two future symbols of welcome.

Monday, students, staff and dignitaries gathered outside Earl Marriott Secondary as two red cedar poles – split from a single tree felled in Squamish – were delivered to the school.

And they were called upon for the key ceremonial role of witness by Semiahmoo First Nation councillor Joanne Charles, who drummed and sang the poles into the school with other Semiahmoo singers, for what was described as the “historic” CEN’ALIEN Project.

In the hands of SFN carver Leonard Wells – himself a former Marriott student – the poles, which bear some preliminary marks, will be transformed into two totems, one male and one female, which will be on permanent display in the school’s entrance lobby.

In keeping with Marriott’s ‘Mariner’ theme, Charles said the male figure will be carrying the paddle of a traditional First Nations fisherman in Semiahmoo Bay.

The carving, to take place in the school’s inner courtyard, should be complete in time for EMS’s annual powwow in March, Wells told Peace Arch News.

“I was thinking it would take about four months, but it might be only three,” he said, noting that his initial work on the project only began at the beginning of September.

“Once I get going, I just don’t stop.”

“We’re very excited,” Charles said. “We’ve been talking about this for 20 years – we have some short-term goals and some long-term goals, and this is one we really wanted to work on with the school.”

Marriott principal Peter Johnston said the pole carving will be a learning experience for students and “a lasting legacy for the school.”

Aboriginal advocate teacher Michael McKay-Dunn said the project – a collaboration between the school, the school district and Semiahmoo First Nation, helped by private fundraising – is the first of its kind in a Surrey high school. He credited new aboriginal education district principal Gloria Raphael with helping to get it underway.

Raphael told the crowd that the project’s affirmation of aboriginal identity fits in well with the district’s newly-avowed focus for these students, 71 of whom currently attend EMS.

“We want First Nations students to graduate with dignity, purpose and options,” she said.

Surrey-White Rock MLA Gordon Hogg recalled that Semiahmoo First Nation’s commitment to education could be seen back as far as 1959, when the late Bernard Charles, later chief, became the first aboriginal president of a student council in Canada.

“It’s only through celebrating different cultures that we can learn to get along with each other,” he said.

White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin noted the project’s appropriateness in the “year of reconciliation” between Canada’s First Nations and other populations.

“This school has made a huge success of overcoming the mess we made of it before,” he said.

Const. Troy Derrick, Surrey RCMP First Nations Policing officer, told students that bearing witness to the ceremony is an important part of a culture based on oral traditions.

“Some time, you’re going to be asked what it’s like to be a Canadian…this is what it’s all about. It’s going to stick with you guys, the younger generation – you witnessed it, you saw it.”


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