Montreal totem pole full of symbolism
Montreal totem pole – No question that the single mention of ‘residential schools’ brings pain to Canada’s aboriginal people, it also brings shame to a country that at one point in its history took such wrong approach to its relationship with the first inhabitants of the land. Time has passed: reparations have been made, reconciliation is now on the agenda, now it is also a moment for the arts to contribute to the healing process. And that is what the unveiling of the Residential School Totem Pole just in front of the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts represents. The spectacular structure, 21.45 metres high, was the work of the Kwakiutl Nation artist Charles Joseph and it will be part of La Balade pour la Paix (The Walk for Peace) – An Open Air Museum, a joint initiative by the MMFA and McGill University to mark the 375th anniversary of Montreal.
Totem poles are of course a signature art form of the West Coast aboriginal nations. In this case, the sculptor wanted to dedicate this piece to “the First Nations children, of whom the artist Charles Joseph was one, who were taken away from their families and sent to the residential schools of religious communities.”
Those who have the occasion to visit the sculpture on Sherbrooke Street West will see that the totem pole has eight levels of representations, with distinct images. From the bottom one can see the Patron’s Family, going through the Cedar Ring that symbolizes safety, then the Wild Woman seen with children who were coming back from the residential schools. She also represents female tradition and culture. Then on the next level comes the Killer Whale representing the different tribes, followed by the Raven who is a “trickster” and represents the nuns, priests, and government workers who then took the children to the residential schools. The Bear which is the next level has many faces representing the children who died while in the care of the residential schools. The final two levels of the totem pole are the Arctic Fox, representing the observer, the witness to what happened; and Kulus which represents Charles Joseph’s chief.
The unveiling ceremony was very moving and symbolic as well. There on that corner of the city (originally Mohawk land after all) converged the Mayor Denis Coderre, the Kahnawake Grand Chief Joe Norton (who ironically referred to Montreal as “its most prosperous suburb”) and the artist and members of a delegation from the Kwakiutl nation of British Columbia.
Mayor Coderre indicated he felt “humbled” by the whole event and its significance. He then remarked that “The City is firmly committed to reconciliation, and our pledge takes on new meaning as we stand before this totem pole and remember the thousands of aboriginal people who passed through the residential school system.” He finally added that “As we celebrate Montreal 375th anniversary, understanding and reconciliation with aboriginal peoples are of vital importance.”
The symbols from the Aboriginal nations were very present throughout the whole dedication event. From the blessing at the beginning to the ritual dances held at the end of the ceremony, all of that in an atmosphere of recognition through that magnificent piece of art, of the injustices of the past and the need to work harder to build a new relationship between the First Nations and the rest of Canadians. The arts can certainly contribute to that.
Feature image: Joe Norton and the artist Charles Joseph