At Foster Eastman’s studio in Coal Harbour, a group of veterans are huddled around the early stages of a tribute pole.
Covering the surface are satellite images of Kandahar and Kabul, along with the names of military ranks, which the men are in the process of carving into the wood.
Squamish master carver Xwalacktun (Rick Harry) advises 29-year-old Dale Hamilton on the best way to chisel the letters as Eastman looks on.
It’s all part of a project aimed at telling the stories of the veterans—their tours in Afghanistan and the challenges they face once they return home—and helping them to heal along the way.
“With men, if they’re busy with their hands, they tend to talk more,” Eastman tells the Straight in an interview at his studio. “I mean, we’re not here to offer therapy, but I think if it happens, great. It’s almost like a side effect.”
Xwalacktun has been leading the veterans through the traditional First Nations process of creating a totem pole, beginning with the healing song he performed before they began carving. But the materials of this monument aren’t exactly conventional—the tribute pole consists of two coffins.
The caskets symbolize the 158 Canadian soldiers who died in Afghanistan, and the fact that many people who struggle with depression feel like they’re “trapped in a box”, according to Eastman.
This isn’t the first time the artist has worked with veterans. His previous project resulted in the creation of the Lest We Forget CANADA! mural last year. The 162-panel tribute to Canadians killed in Afghanistan, which raised $120,000 for the Veterans Transition Network, will be kept by the Canadian War Museum as part of its permanent collection.
The process of creating the mural became very therapeutic for the veterans involved, Eastman notes, as the soldiers began to talk about their experiences to civilians who participated in the project.
“The doctors that were treating a lot of the veterans noticed great improvement in their mental well-being,” Eastman says. “So of course it became therapeutic, but that’s not what our intention was. We were just doing art. But it did kind of happen naturally.”
The success of the mural led to Eastman’s current initiative, which is part of a project funded by the Movember Foundation. In addition to the tribute pole, a group of veterans is working on a theatre production with UBC professor George Belliveau.
Once the pole is raised at the end of April, it will tell the stories of the veterans through the carved military ranks across the front, such as captain, lieutenant, and private.
“This is the military family,” Eastman says. “These are the people they trust with their lives, and it’s a connection that we’ll never understand. It’s a pretty tight club.”
The pole will also feature the crests of military regiments from across the country. On the back of the structure, maps of Canada and images of the veterans will help to depict what the men are going through now that they’re home, including some of the typical challenges vets can face, such as depression and isolation.
“Whether the challenge is PTSD or other mental issues or physical ones, I think most vets have a unique experience but there are similarities that we as other vets can understand,” says Hamilton. “From my own experience, isolation is a big one, both from friends and family and just life in general…you sort of abdicate your life for a while.”
The pole will also display a tribute to the soldiers who didn’t return, with each of their first names carved into the surface of the caskets.
Hamilton notes that most veterans who served in Afghanistan knew somebody who was killed. During the process of creating the Lest We Forget mural, each panel became a way for the veterans to honour a particular soldier. He expects the name carving to be a similar gesture.
“Especially for those of us who have unresolved issues about our friends and what happened over there, to do something like this is our way of honouring them, and resolving something in our own mind about the experience,” he says.
In addition to honouring the soldiers who were killed in Afghanistan, the hope is that the tribute-pole project will help generate public awareness of the challenges that veterans face, and encourage others to get help.
“This is a great project to really bring forward to people to understand where these young people came from in their journey in wartime,” says Xwalacktun. “This is bringing people out and being able to share while they’re working, so it’ll help them grow and heal.”
Bob Sutherland, a Métis veteran who served with the Canadian military in Cyprus in the 1960s, says every veteran is changed by their service.
“Nobody comes home the same person after deployment,” he explains during a break from the carving lesson at the studio.
He notes that it’s good to see the young veterans working together on the tribute pole. That’s why he views the group-based therapy program offered by the Veterans Transition Network as so effective.
“We veterans have to help each other—it’s very important,” he says. “Because if we don’t look after each other, who will? Who will understand us?”
Tim Laidler, who has acted as the executive director of the Veterans Transition Network since 2012 (he is stepping down at the end of March to campaign as a Conservative candidate in Port Moody–Coquitlam), says the network’s program is helping veterans. What remains a challenge is ensuring continued support for former military members as they return to civilian life after seeking treatment.
“We need the mental-health system…but then, beyond that, projects like this,” the 29-year-old says. “If this was happening across Canada on a regular basis and veterans had things to go and do, then I think we’d see a lot of changes.”
Laidler says that while veterans participating in the transition program are often coping with mental-health issues, the biggest obstacle can be determining their next steps.
"There’s once they can kind of drop the baggage and the 'what next?' And how they’re going to remake themselves after the military."
Hamilton notes his challenges didn’t manifest until he'd left the Canadian Forces.
“I left the military kind of feeling okay with my mental health and my tour and everything else, but about half a year or eight months after I got out, once I was removed from all my friends I served with…I started to nosedive,” he says.
“And that kind of led to the issues I had, so I think by putting vets back in a room with other vets, who understand the common experience…if you’re just having a beer or working on an art project and just hanging out, it does so much to have that community back. And just…get out of the house and engage in something that’s both creative and productive.”
Sean Loucks, a Langley resident and veteran who did two tours in Afghanistan, credits the Veterans Transition Program with changing his life “right around”. His experience with the program is what prompted him to get involved in the carving project.
“It helped me immensely, so I always told them, ‘If you need me for anything, I’m always willing to give back just to help,’ ” he says.
“Knowing where I was at and the path I could have gone down before the program switched me on the right path—if I can help that one guy, it’s worth it.”
The tribute pole will be raised at Studio 1398 on Granville Island on April 30, May 1, and May 2.