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Nearly a century later, a symbol of the Haida returns to its people Add to ...

Ninety-five years after it was taken from Haida Gwaii to adorn a railway station in Alberta, the Raven totem pole is back in Old Massett.

Restoration experts have spent months trying to remove lead paint - bright white, red and aqua - that had been added to help make the 12-metre-long pole a tourist icon in Jasper. It arrived on a ferry Friday and on Monday, Haida leaders will formally restore the pole's name, Stihlda.

Traces of paint remain, a reminder of the cedar pole's travels. "It was painted some grisly colours over the years," said Vince Collison, the Haida co-ordinator of the event. "So we're grateful to get it, as close as possible, back to the original condition."

Mr. Collison has been part of the Haida repatriation committee for more than a dozen years, working to bring back cultural items that have been collected by museums around the globe. The work focused first on ancestral remains. It is only in recent years, with the remains of 500 of their people returned, that the Haida have turned their attention to works of art.

The memorial pole, believed to be 140 years old, is now too weatherbeaten to be raised again. Instead, it will be laid out in a protective display crate until a new longhouse is ready to house the artifact.

The details of how the pole was removed are murky, but Mr. Collison said it is unlikely that it was freely sold or given away. "You can't sugar-coat that; they thought they were taking these things away from a dying people."

For decades, the pole's provenance was unsung. It came to be a symbol of the Rockies and a promotional emblem for the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, which brought the pole to Jasper to mark its new northern route across the mountains to Prince Rupert in 1914.

"It's an incredible Canadian story that needed to be told," Environment Minister Jim Prentice said Sunday.

"I can still remember seeing it for the first time," he recalled. Mr. Prentice first visited Jasper as a 13-year-old boy, in 1969. Like many visitors, Mr. Prentice assumed the totem pole represented a local aboriginal community.

It wasn't until last year, as Minister of the Environment, that he learned otherwise. "I was appalled this treasure had been taken from the Haida," he said. As a former minister for Indian Affairs, he had come to know the Haida and understood the Jasper landmark would have to go home.

The Haida are now carving a new pole, commissioned by Parks Canada, that will be raised in Jasper. Mr. Prentice said the swap highlights a spirit of reconciliation.

The federal Conservative government's relationship with first nations has not been unblemished. The Harper government tore up the Kelowna Accord, which would have invested $5-billion over the space of a decade into improved education and living conditions for first nations communities. Mr. Prentice defended his government's record Sunday, citing the apology and cash settlement of claims for residential schools, as well as investments in clean water and housing on reserves.

The totem pole is a tangible display of good intentions, he said. "This is a symbol of what we have achieved," he said.

Last week, the Haida marked another milestone when they formally returned the name Queen Charlotte Islands to the Crown and restored the name Haida Gwaii to the cluster of islands off B.C.'s North Coast.

Premier Gordon Campbell officially accepted the returned name, Queen Charlotte Islands, in an empty Haida bentwood box. The change will be reflected on maps and official government correspondence.

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