James Hart and his son, Gwaliga, have worked on many projects together, but the latest, a totem pole led by the Haida master carver, holds a special significance for both: in it, they address the past, present, and future of Canada with regard to the effects of the Indian residential school system.
Commissioned by philanthropist and art collector Michael Audain, the 55-foot pole is being carved by James, Gwaliga, John Brent Bennett, Brandon Brown, Jaalen Edenshaw, Derek White, Leon Ridley, and Hart's late son, Carl, (all of the Haida Nation) from an 800-year-old ts'uu, or red cedar, and has taken more than two years to complete.
On Saturday, it will be raised following traditional Haida protocols on UBC's Point Grey campus, on unceded Musqueam Territory.
Last week, the Straight visited the large tent where the finishing touches are being put on the massive piece. Both James and Gwaliga shared important details of the story told by the totem, and why the reality of Canada's dark history cannot be ignored.
"It's national story, part of our Canadian history, and so this one was designed with that in mind," says Gwaliga. "We're really paying recognition and respect to the time before residential schools, but also to during and after."
Funded and operated by the federal government and Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, and United churches, Indian residential schools were first authorized by John A. McDonald in 1883, following a slough of recommendations and reports that suggested the best way to assimilate First Nations children was to remove them for their parents.
By 1930, roughly 17,000 children were enrolled in approximately 90 schools across Canada. Even after many of the schools were transferred to local bands in 1969, the last residential school did not close until 1996. A total of 150,000 children attended the schools over the course of the system's century-long operation, and while some have guessed that 6,000 children died while attending, others have estimated that the number is as high as 50,000. (No one is certain as the number of deaths stopped being recorded in 1920.)
Reading the pole from the bottom up, Gwaliga explained that the lower section of the pole begins with the salmon house and a sraagaa, or shaman figure, who performs a ritual to ensure the return of the salmon.
"The salmon house is representing the life cycles of the salmon, and other food and beings that are out there, that we as humans and other animals rely on for their well-being," he says.
Next, a bear and two cubs represent the Haida story of the bear mother. Raven, a character that comes up in many Haida stories, can be seen peeking out from behind the bear mother's ears.
"Then there's the residential schoolhouse, which is modeled after Coqualeetza Residential School," Gwaliga explains. "We never had residential school up in Haida Gwaii, so our people were taken far way from their homes, and this was one of the schools that they went to, down here in Chilliwack."
Coqualeetza was the same residential school that may of the Hart family's relatives (including James' grandfather, great aunts, and uncles) and friends attended.
"It really shows a break in the storyline, because poles are read from the bottom up, so it looks like it's been plunked on our heads," Gwaliga says.
The younger Hart added that throughout the carving process, they've invited survivors, families of victims and survivors, and young children to hammer thousands of copper nails into the pole—more than 900 pounds worth—to represent the children that died while attending residential schools.
"Standing atop the schoolhouse are the survivors, the children, and they're all linking arms and holding onto one another, supporting each other through that time," he says, adding that the children's feet aren't shown "because they weren't grounded" in family and culture.
This stage of the pole is meant to represent all residential school survivors across Canada, so James has recruited artists from different First Nations to carve the faces in their own unique style.
Above the children are four spirit figures, which represent the children's ancestry, "things that couldn't be taken away from them, no matter what." Each figure speaks to the four worldly realms: a killer whale for the water, a bear for the land, an eagle for the air, and a thunderbird for the supernatural.
Next, the pole moves to the time after the schools were closed.
"Above the spirit figures is a family unit wearing traditional attire, really representing revitalization and strength, and coming back together," says Gwaliga. "It's a family united: united again as going back to the time before residential schools, which were implemented to create those divides, to destroy, and to assimilate."
A series of waves are the base for two boats; a canoe and a longboat that sit side-by-side atop the water, to represent all Canadians. The canoe will represent all First Nations, and will contain different styles of paddles to reflect that.
"The longboat represents all the other people in Canada that we share the space with," says Gwaliga. "It honours our differences but still shows that we can do our own thing—It's us, together, side-by-side, moving forward into the future together."
At the very top of the pole, an eagle about to take flight carries four patina-coloured coppers that match the four colours of the medicine wheel.
"It looks like it's flying forward, taking off into the future, with everybody included," Gwaliga says. "It's all about the motion forward, and that vision of the future."
For Gwaliga, the challenges involved with processing the effects of the school system while carving the pole have at times taken their toll.
"There have definitely been moments where it's sunk in, where we totally understand the weight of what we're working on," he says. "It's a part of our history and everybody's in it. We're all included in all of this, and it's an honour and privilege to be able to help create that."
For the elder Hart, the combination of the passing of his son, Carl, in 2015, and the subject matter of the pole often weighs on him heavily.
"Carl started out with us on the boats and the eagle, and we lost him a few years ago," he says. "So there's that, and being involved with this, there are always more and more stories coming to the surface about what these children had to deal with."
As a child, Hart did not attend residential school, but watching his friends and family members suffer often left him wondering what caused it.
"I didn't realize until a lot later in life that it was causing all of this strife and turmoil in their lives, which spilled into our lives in a sense, too, because we were living there and trying to help them deal with what was going on," says the master carver. "What it did, is it stripped them. It stripped them of their energy, left them cold."
Hart relays stories he's been told by survivors and their families: "One lady who will speak at this event had to wrap the bodies of the children in sheets—that’s what they buried them in. Then the older boys would dig the holes," he says.
Hart's own grandfather once told him that as a child attending residential school, he was required to make shoes. "They never wanted us to learn anything there," he had said, "they just wanted us to work."
Though the horrors of residential school continue to be revealed, Hart says he sees progress being made among younger generations.
"We’re here today, we’re still here, and we want to go forward," he says. "This pole is about understanding what has taken place, and the depth of all of that, because you can’t smooth the edges on it.
"We understand that, and we move forward together."
Watch Hart dicuss the pole in more detail in this video produced by UBC.
The Reconciliation Totem Pole will be raised on Saturday (April 1) on Main Mall between Agronomy Road and Thunderbird Boulevard, at 1 p.m. Find more info here.