In Of Montreal, Robert Everett-Green writes weekly about the people, places and events that make Montreal a distinctive cultural capital.
Charles Joseph danced barefoot on the pavement of Montreal's Sherbrooke Street, where a 21-metre totem pole he carved had just been installed outside the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. He wore Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwakiutl) regalia made by himself and his family, and as he danced with others from his West Coast nation, he shook handfuls of eagle down that gradually drifted away on the wind.
"I'm floating like an eagle right now," he told me after the hour-long series of speeches, ceremonial dances and gift exchanges that inaugurated his Residential School Totem Pole on Wednesday. "I am so excited, I feel light. I could dance all day."
Much of Joseph's early life was miserable beyond imagining. At the age of 5, he was taken from his family and forced to attend St. Andrew's Indian Residential School in Alert Bay, B.C. For eight years, the Anglican Church of Canada staff abused him and stripped him of his culture while somehow failing to teach him to read and write. When he returned to his village at 13, he said, "there was nobody there."
Years of hard drinking ended when he realized that the only things that made him feel whole were the traditional practices he had learned from his elders.
He sobered up, became skilled at making drums and regalia and began carving.
"I was hungry to learn who I was supposed to be," he said.
Unlike the traditional poles Joseph has carved, the Residential School Totem Pole adapts Kwakwaka'wakw iconography, as relayed to him by his great-grandfather, to tell a tragic story that shaped Joseph personally. The matriarchal Wild Woman and the bear are present as protective figures in the lives of the 150,000 children committed to the residential schools. The killer whale appears as a symbol of dispersed children and their often transitory lives after leaving the schools.
In the middle of the pole, the raven, a trickster figure, represents the deceptions and the collusion between church and government that created the residential school system and kept it running for roughly 165 years.
Small white-faced figures on the pole stand for the 3,200 children who died at the schools.
Joseph's retelling of a shameful narrative through sacred imagery has lightened his heart, he said.
Presenting the tale and getting others to know and understand it "became part of my healing journey."
The ceremony itself was a complex event in which the key word was "permission." Montreal stands on Kanien'keha:ka (Mohawk) territory, so after a dance to bless the ground, Joseph and his community asked Mohawk leaders to be allowed to place the pole on their land.
There was also an act of permission inherent in each performance of a song. Eli Charlie, the young man who sang and drummed most of the songs, said that each belonged to a family that had granted permission for it to be sung in Montreal.
Each part of the ceremony involved multiple layers of courtesy and respect. All of it unfolded next to a pole that referred to a narrative of assimilation in which courtesy and respect were completely absent. No one asked permission of Indigenous peoples to put their children into residential schools; to adopt them out during the Sixties Scoop; or to continue with other acts of destruction perpetrated against Indigenous families to this day.
And of course, no one asked the people native to the Island of Montreal whether it was okay for a party of French evangelicals to found a city here in 1642 and begin their mission of converting the heathen.
And yet the raising of the pole, and the open-air La Balade pour la Paix exhibition of which it is the first instalment, is part of the official program for the city's 375th anniversary. Mayor Denis Coderre and Manon Gauthier, the Montreal council member responsible for culture, both hailed the anniversary as a worthy occasion for the pole's presence in the heart of the city's Golden Square Mile for the next six months.
Coderre described his city as "the metropolis of reconciliation." He also told Joseph: "We understand all the suffering that you endured. Please forgive us for the past."
The non-Indigenous people who witnessed the ceremonies applauded after each dance and took many photos, as if they were attending an open-air entertainment. As several Indigenous speakers said, it was in fact a series of solemn rituals that would not normally be seen outside a potlatch.
Joe Norton, grand chief of the Mohawks of Kahnawake, offered what may have been his own reflection on liberties taken and permissions not sought when he held Joseph's hands in his and said, "Welcome to Mohawk territory and to the great city of Montreal, one of our most prosperous suburbs." Kahnawake could less amusingly be described as an invisible suburb of Montreal, not much talked about in the city unless someone is blocking a bridge.
In an interview after the ceremony, Christine Zachary-Deom, chief of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, gave some credit to the mayor and to churches, universities and high schools in the city for working to reduce discrimination and improve opportunities for the 30,000 Indigenous people who live in Montreal. But she also noted the continuing legal challenge by municipalities near Kahnawake of a Quebec court ruling that reversed some of the land grabs that have nibbled away more than half the area originally reserved for the Mohawk. It seems the distance between the metropolis of reconciliation and the villages of continued enmity is just a few clicks on the odometer.
Joseph said he would be happy, and feel reconciled, if people would just listen to his story and understand. A more difficult challenge was put forward by his relative Michael Lickers, who acted as MC for the dedication. "Reconciliation is not just about saying, 'I understand,'" he said. "It means putting into action what we say we're going to do."
With Canada 150 almost halfway done, many Indigenous people are still asking Canada and its governments: What are you really going to do about reconciliation?