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The totem pole replaces a 1959 pole commissioned to commemorate the relationship between Canadian and British navies. (GEOFF HOWE)
The totem pole replaces a 1959 pole commissioned to commemorate the relationship between Canadian and British navies. (GEOFF HOWE)

EYES ON THE ISLAND

As totem pole rises, so does talk of reconciliation and ritual Add to ...

After blessings from Esquimalt and Songhees elders, after the singing of an Indian Shaker prayer, after remarks from B.C. Lieutenant-Governor Steven Point and hereditary chief Tony Hunt, it was time at last to erect the totem pole.

Some 500 people gathered on the front lawn of Government House, the official residence of the Queen’s representative in the province, to witness the raising of Hosaqami, a 7.3-metre-tall pole.

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Elders and dignitaries held white ropes attached to block and tackle. At the end of one rope stood Mr. Point in his honorary captain’s naval uniform. He looked out on children he had earlier invited to sit on the ground near the formal ceremony.

“Come on, kids,” he urged. “All you kids grab a hold of the rope.”

They jumped up from the grass to grasp the white rope with soft hands. On command, the children – Ezra and Eulalie, Delphine and Gryphon, Jack and Grace, Nadine and Brittany, Tony and Simon and John Sebastian, ages four to 12 – pulled back as though playing a game of tug-of-war.

The pole was hoisted slowly to the rhythm of hand-held drums and rattles.

After five minutes, the pole stood on a site where it is expected to last for generations.

“Did you have fun, kids?” the vice-regal representative asked, the rope still in his hands.

They squealed their approval.

“You’re part of history, guys. Right on.”

Carvers led by Mr. Hunt have worked on the cedar pole on the grounds of Government House for four months. The Lieutenant-Governor, himself a member of the Skowkale First Nation, wielded a chainsaw in carving an orca’s tail on the pole. The final carving and painting was completed only hours before Saturday’s ceremony.

The occasion was marked by speeches about reconciliation, about traditional residents and newer arrivals in this province sharing the same canoe, about keeping alive ancient rituals, some, such as the potlatch, outlawed for more than a half-century. Barefoot dancers wearing chilkat blankets and clothes studded with seashells celebrated at the event.

“That was the cedar-bark ceremony,” Mr. Hunt told the audience, many of whom stood under a hot sun for hours. “Usually it takes a month.” He paused for comic effect. “We thought we’d cut it a little short [today].”

Mr. Hunt, a hereditary chief of the KwaGulth, also spoke in his native Kwak’wala language. He is responsible for creating almost 100 totem poles, which have been erected around the globe. (One he made with his father, Henry Hunt, still stands on Île Notre-Dame in Montreal, the only remnant of the “Indians of Canada” pavilion at Expo 67.)

Mr. Hunt is the grandson of the master carver Mungo Martin, who passed on to him the culture of their people, as well as the techniques for making totem poles. In 1959, Mr. Martin was commissioned by the Royal Canadian Navy to carve a pole as a gift for their allies with the Royal Navy.

This pole, also named Hosaqami, was accompanied to England by an escort of 15 aboriginal sailors.

At the weekend ceremonies, three members of the original Hosaqami escort crew were in attendance – Gordie McBryan, of Shuswap Nation; Bill Shead, of Peguis First Nation; and, Hal Lecoy, an Ojibwa originally from Pine Falls, Man. The Canadians marched the totem pole through the streets of Portsmouth a half-century ago. “The English people didn’t understand who we were,” said Mr. Lecoy, 72, a retired letter carrier who lives in Burnaby. “We scared ‘em a little bit, I think. I remember someone saying, ‘Where’s John Wayne when you need him?’ ”

The pole stood at the naval base on Whale Island for decades before becoming severely damaged by weather. It was returned to Canada, where it was determined the pole was beyond repair. A replica pole, to stand in Victoria, was commissioned to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and to honour aboriginal veterans.

As a boy, Mr. Hunt worked on the original pole. He helped create the new pole using tools, including an adz, once owned by his late grandfather. The original Hosaqami pole now rests atop a sand mound on the Government House grounds. It is being allowed to rot, returning to the earth from whence it came.

Follow on Twitter: @tomhawthorn

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