As a long-time resident of the Downtown Eastside, Bernie Williams has seen firsthand the often-inhumane struggles faced by the area’s homeless population.
When it comes to describing some of the cruelties she’s witnessed, the bold yet humble Haida artist doesn’t hold back:
“I’ve watched some of the kids that come into this community urinate on homeless people who are sleeping in alcoves,” she tells the Straight. “This is not how we treat human beings.”
The injustices faced by this population, she says, are things few would expect to see in a civilized society, but thanks to a wave of gentrification in the area, living options for residents of the DTES have dwindled significantly, making them targets for acts of violence, bullying, racism, and more.
Gentrification, she says, is what first spurred the idea to create what eventually became known as the Survivors’ Totem Pole: something for residents of the area that, at the very least, could be a symbol of hope.
The Haida-born artist, who also goes by her Haida name, Gul Kitt Jaad, meaning Golden Spruce Woman, has spent her life advocating to stop violence against murdered and missing women, and to creating art.
Williams credits Mark Townsend, former co-executive director of the Portland Hotel Society, for first expressing an interest in marking the area with something to commemorate residents facing oppression.
“He was really concerned about the people in Pigeon Park once the new businesses started moving in, about where these people would go,” Williams says, seated on a red leather couch in her work space on West Cordova, where the walls are plastered with images of women who have been murdered or gone missing.
The space is also the headquarters for the Sacred Circle Society, which raised donations through a Kickstarter campaign to fund the creation and installation of the pole.
“Pigeon Park has always been very significant for people from all walks of life, so we started talking to the matriarchs, hereditary chiefs, the Japanese and Chinese communities, South Asian, Filipino, and Latin-American communities, and the First Nations communities about creating something.”
The grassroots movement began five years ago, and Williams says it has been a tough but rewarding process.
After consultations with the City of Vancouver regarding the location of the pole, and support from the Musqueum, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations, the Survivors’ Totem Pole will be erected this Saturday (November 5) in Pigeon Park, at noon.
The pole, carved from a 27-foot, 982-year-old red cedar log, is the first of its kind, in that it will represent all cultures.
“This pole is for everybody: it represents the resilience of everyone who has faced racism, colonialism, sexism, LGBTQ-bashing, gentrification, and more,” Williams says. “These things have really affected this whole community. We want to let people that are moving into this area know that this is a great community, that we are still part of it, and we’re not going away.
“We are here to stay, and this pole is a lasting legacy for these people, and all the people that have helped make this happen.”
Audrey Siegl, a board member of the Sacred Circle Society and activist who is Musqueam, says so much of what has occurred in the DTES comes down to one thing: the continued prioritization, by all levels of government, of dollars over life.
“The end result is that everybody loses. This pole is a win-win,” she says.
“I look at the women around me, at the women like Bernie, and I know that it’s an uphill battle, but we have every reason to be hopeful, simply because we still exist, and because we are able to join together and support projects like the Survivors’ Totem,” she says. “This day isn’t about politics. It isn’t about anything except for the people down here who deserve to be honoured and commemorated.”
The pole will be Williams’s third in Vancouver; her first two can be seen at First United Church (320 East Hastings) and at Van Tech Secondary (2600 East Broadway). The sole female apprentice of renowned Haida artist Bill Reid, Williams says one of the greatest lessons she ever learned from the master carver was never to get complacent.
“He taught me that I could always do better, and I strive to do better all the time,” she says. “This pole is bigger than anything I’ve done, but it’s not about accolades; it’s a huge testament of the people, of how they’ve all come together. This is not my project, this is all of ours. I was gifted with this ability, and when I was asked to do it, we did it together. I worked with nine indigenous women from across Canada and three indigenous men to carve the Survivors’ Pole. This is their first time carving a pole and they are excited.”
Townsend, reached by phone at his home in New York City, says he’s always admired Williams for her unwavering commitment to the community.
“She’s a feisty lady, and I found that inspiring,” he says. “There isn’t space for people who live down there. They are not celebrated; they are brutalized. I hope that this piece of Bernie’s work ultimately is not just symbolism, but a piece with spiritual meaning that says, ‘There is a space for you, and you are welcome’.”
Williams and the carvers asked that a line from the poem by the late Sandy Cameron, a long-time activist and community member, be engraved on the base of the totem pole. It says:
Sing your song, friend.
Tell your story.
The map we inherited
Isn’t any good.
The old roads mislead.
We need a new map.
The Survivors’ Totem Pole raising ceremony will take place this Saturday. All are invited to gather at the corner of Main and Hastings at 11:30 a.m. for a procession to Pigeon Park, where the ceremony will begin at noon. Refreshments and entertainment to follow.