Montreal totem pole captures dark history of residential schools
Published Friday, May 5, 2017 10:01PM EDT
In the midst of downtown Montreal’s hustle and bustle, a new totem pole stands as a towering reminder of the dark legacy of Canada’s residential school system.
Erected on Wednesday, outside the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the 21-metre pole tells the story of its artist, Charles Joseph, who was taken away from his family as a child and forced into a religious-run residential school in Alert Bay, B.C.
The monumental piece of art was carved from a massive tree from B.C. The pole is part of an open-air museum celebrating Montreal’s 375th anniversary and Canada’s 150th anniversary.
Like thousands of other indigenous children in the residential school system, Joseph was subjected to serious physical abuse. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada estimates that, in the last century, 150,000 children were taken from their families as part of an assimilation policy.
The idea of carving the totem pole came to Joseph in a dream. For him, it was a way to capture those painful years, work towards healing, and craft a tribute to others who endured similar experiences.
At the top of the pole, a mythological bird called a kulus, recognized by B.C. First Nations, is a nod to Joseph’s childhood home. Lower down is a killer whale, representing memory. A white spirit bear is a symbol for those children who died in residential schools.
Near the bottom, Joseph carved a priest and a nun.
“That is to remind me of who hurt me,” Joseph told CTV News.
The striking piece of art comes at an important time in Canada’s history, according to the museum’s director.
“Telling the story of this tragedy through the powerful artistry of one of our leading creators is essential in the perspective of our new century,” said Nathalie Bondil, the director general and chief curator of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, in a statement.
“Only six of the First Nations of the West Coast ever carved these works… and there are even fewer today because the technical and artistic skills required to make them are so demanding.”
The pole was unveiled at a special ceremony earlier this week. Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre acknowledged the importance of shining a light on dark episodes in history and working towards healing.
"Please forgive us for the past," Coderre said at the event.
The totem pole will be on display in Montreal for the next six months before being moved to a display in Toronto.
With a report from CTV’s Montreal Bureau Chief Genevieve Beauchemin