Elders, students, teachers, administrators and community members took part in an unveiling ceremony for the Gulf Islands School District’s first welcome pole on March 6, concluding a three-year carving project that involved people from all around the islands.
“It was a pretty momentous day for the Gulf Islands,” said Shannon Johnston, Indigenous education coordinator for the Gulf Islands School District. “We were really touched and deeply moved to see so many people who just kept coming and coming . . . It marks a significant time for our schools, for education and for what’s generally happening in our province and country.”
Students from kindergarten through Grade 12 attended the afternoon ceremony. The event began with drumming and a song by Salish artist Quentin Harris and his daughter Asia. Cowichan Elder Fred George was invited to speak, welcoming the people to the lands and teaching the kids about the pole’s significance. After George’s talk, Harris was honoured for his contributions to the community by being blanketed, a major honour in Salish culture. Witnesses were also called to recognize the work that had been done on the project.
“The elders from the Cowichan and Tsawout nations helped us go through the plan for the day, to make sure we were following all of the protocols and that we were doing it genuinely and authentically honouring all of the necessary pieces to the ceremony,” Johnston said. “We wanted to make sure that we did it well.”
A welcome figure represents the link between the past and the present. In welcoming people to that place, it honours the traditional land of the Coast Salish people, but also gives students a link to the culture, and a place to learn more about the traditions of the land where they go to school. In 2016, Harris had the idea to carve the figure, after working on a similar project in Maple Ridge.
“I got a call from my real estate agent, who said that she had a cedar log on one of her properties and asked me if I wanted it,” Harris explained during the ceremony. “I looked at the log and I knew right away that it wasn’t for me. I knew that the creator spoke to me and said ‘I want this for my children.’ ”
The log was blessed in a traditional ceremony in March 2016, and the carving project began. Over the course of the past three years, students from all over the islands were given the chance to take part in the carving. Harris held a weekly day where he would be at the school working on the log, and invited classes from each school to come to the project and learn.
“We wanted to make sure that everybody, every hand, every heart had an opportunity to come and participate in the carving,” Johnston said. “[Harris] was very generous in that he was sharing the carving with all of these community members and kids of all ages. He of course added his magic to it and after three years it was time for us to put it up.”
The process of carving was more important than the end product. The pole is intended to be a focal point of the community, centrally located at the Hydro Field so it is visible and accessible to everyone. The location will also allow for classes to come and learn about Coast Salish history and traditions.
“I think it will also keep it in the place of some reverence and respect,” Johnston said. “As the children were working on it, they were taught what it was about. They played a role in it, and they’re proud of it. They’re going to tell their kids about it and so on . . . We wanted to make sure we were putting it into a proud place.”