Friday, June 2, 2017

Path to Healing

Totem at the Museum

This totem pole has been installed in front of the museum. It was carved and completed by Charles Joseph, a Kwakiutl artist from British Columbia. It is part of an outdoor exhibit of sculpture in celebration of the 375th anniversary of Montreal's founding and Canada's 150th since confederation. Canada's treatment of the aboriginal people has been fraught with attempts to annihilate them, whether through violence, intentionally spreading diseases, forbidding spiritual practices or through forcing children into residential schools which tried to strip them of their culture

The artist who created this totem pole is a residential school survivor. In school he was met with abuses. His life afterwards, as with many other survivors included substance abuse. Over two decades ago, he turned to his culture for healing and creating this totem pole is a continuing part of the process.

Installing the Totem Pole

The figures are taken from Kwakiutl symbols, but they also tell the story of the residential school experiences. Included are images which represent his family.

Bottom of the Totem

The figures at the bottom represent Charles' family. The red above them represents a cedar rope, a symbol of safety and security. Moving up, you can see the wild woman. She is portrayed with children on her lap  - the children coming home from residential schools. She represents female tradition and culture.

Totem from the Side

Here you can see her welcoming arms.

Moving Up the Pole

Above the woman is the killer whale with seven faces, six for the tribes the government recognizes and the seventh for a disputed tribe. The faces also represent the children who were adopted out, not just from Charles' tribe but from First People's bands across Canada.

Detail of Pole

The raven is a trickster. He represents the collusion between the church and the government in the process to assimilate (and take away the cultural identity) of the native peoples. On one side of the raven there is a nun, on the other a priest.

Further up the pole there is a spirit bear. Again, there are many faces, this time representing the many children who did not make it out of St. Mike's residential school (where Charles spent his childhood) as well as those who died later from the damage caused by their experiences.

Top of the Totem Pole

The arctic fox is the observer. It bears witness to the past. Capping the pole is the kulus figure, its wings outspread. It represents both Charles chief as well as Christianity (it stands in the shape of the cross). Many indigenous people, include members' from Charles' family have adopted Christianity. This is meant to show the good side of it.

The pole represents the anguish of the First Nations and their experiences after the arrival of the Europeans, but it also represents steps to healing as Canada finally begins to address the wrongs that were done. Baby steps on the path to reconciliation.

All information comes from a document from the Musée des Beaux Arts de Montréal as part of the Balade pour la paix in celebration of Montreal's 375th anniversary.


  1. How powerful and beautiful! This would be a reminder of what happened in the past and to let sad things never happen again. I had thought Canadians’ approach to the aborigine was quite different from cruel American way to the native Indians, but I learned something here about discrimination and abuses. Thanks for the detailed explanation to the each part, which helped my interpretation.


  2. That totem pole you have shown is such a great work.I wanted to know how the tall pole was installed in the busy town and who created it. I am quite slow in English.So I googled it in Japanese to know the detailed history. It was very impressive one! In Japan we have some histories of the similar circumstances, even now.It is sad.Thank you for sharing,Susan. Have a good week.