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'Your history is standing straight up': Survivors' Totem Pole to be raised in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside

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The story of colonialism in Canada and around the world has two strands: on one, the narrative of exploitation, dispossession, genocide, appropriation and erasure; on the other, the temerity and resolve to resist centuries of violence simply by continuing to exist -- by surviving. A declaration of war and oppression met firmly by the insistence that "we are still here."

Vancouver's embattled Downtown Eastside knows well both of these strands. Its residents -- largely immigrant or aboriginal -- have been besieged by land grabs, by capital investment, by economic development and by the neglect of Canadian governments at every level. Rents for single-room occupancy units have soared, social assistance stagnates, health problems flourish and low-priced amenities disappear; meanwhile, police budgets continue to inflate and affordable housing units are demolished without being replaced.

The manifold legacies of Canada's treatment of racialized and colonized peoples -- Indian Residential Schools, the Chinese Head Tax, Japanese internment camps during the Second World War and the treatment of migrants from the Komagata Maru in 1914 to the MV Sun Sea in 2010 -- can all be witnessed in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (DTES). It is Canada's history of colonialism squeezed into a few city blocks.

But yes, they're still here. They're all still here. And that tenacity, that determination to persist will be celebrated this September when the Sacred Circle Society and their allies erect a "Survivors' Totem Pole" in an as-yet unannounced site somewhere in Vancouver's inner city.


"We're here to stay."

The Survivors' Totem Pole is the result and manifestation of countless grassroots discussions between multiple immigrant and aboriginal groups. Carved by the only female apprentice of the great Haida artist Bill Reid -- Skundaal, of the Raven Haida -- it is meant both to celebrate the survival of the DTES community but also to help it heal.

"I've known Skundaal for many, many years. I don’t even know how long." Elder Woody Morrison, a longtime friend of Skundaal, spoke to me over the phone about the project. "I know her family. I think her mother was the same clan as my father. She's from the Raven tribe. I'm from the Eagle, so I have a responsibility to assist her. It's not a matter of choice."

Skundaal has two totem poles already on the Lower Mainland -- one at First United Church in the DTES and the other at Vancouver Tech Senior Secondary School. The Survivors' Totem Pole will be carved from a 980-year-old, 30-foot log of red cedar. Studio space for her and her three apprentices has been donated by the Portland Hotel Society.

"Once that pole is up," says Morrison, "We call it gyáa-aang. Your history is standing straight up. It's going to give us a marker so we can see where we've been and so we know where were going."

Morrison is mishievous when it comes to his title as Elder ("I guess I'm an elder," he quips. "I am over 70. Just because a person is old you think he's wise, but if a man starts out as a fool, the older he gets the more a damn fool he becomes"), but his words neatly encapsulate the history of struggle in the DTES. 

"I think what it will become is sort of a rallying point so that people can say, 'All right, we're here to stay.' We've got permission from the unceded territory of the Salish. It means we reserve it for ourselves and Canada can't extinguish it without our permission."

The organizers of the pole raising have not asked for permission from any Canadian government -- one of the reasons the proposed site of the Totem Pole is remaining secret. Just over one month ago, the City of Vancouver acknowledged that its residents reside on the traditional, unceded Coast Salish territory of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish First Nations. In a move mimicking the popular intonation at progressive gatherings that can too-often prove self-serving and tokenistic, the city is discovering what it means to exist and flourish on a land never taken by conquest, never relinquished through treaty and never given as a gift

"What I find really curious," says Morrison, who has a law degree from the United States and a background in international law, "in the English common law a flawed title never improves in the passage of time." If you steal a car and sell it, he explains, you never recover the original title no matter how many times you resell it.

The Crown, he points out, has never proven the validity of their title to Coast Salish land. "All they did was, Governor Douglas surveyed the land and started selling it. They can't claim by conquest, they can't claim by discovery. Neither one of those conditions existed.

"We didn't have a contract for real estate," he continues. His ancestors, he tells me, used to call the Spaniards the "People of the long knives." "We thought they were trying to dig clams in the beach!" he says, describing Spanish settlers poking around in the sand with their "long iron knives." "But," Morrison says with a laugh, "he was claiming the land for the King of Spain!" 

For his part, Morrison leaves little doubt as to from whom he thinks Skundaal and her allies should ask permission: "As far as I'm concerned they should get it from Musqueam people!"


Crowd-sourcing Survival

To fund the project, the Sacred Circle Society has started a Kickstarter "all-or-nothing" campaign, meaning if they don't reach their goal of $15,000, the project receives no funding. At time of writing, they are more than two-thirds of the way through -- but any surplus will go toward paying the artist and hosting a proper feast and celebration at the pole-raising ceremony in September. 

The project is remarkable for its anti-colonialist, anti-capitalist spirit of diversity and unity. The various communities responsible for the Survivors' Totem Pole are not unused to working together in solidarity. It was the Musqueam people, for example, who offered sanctuary to Chinese labourers during Vancouver's race riots in 1886. Today, migrant peoples who now call Canada home despite past injustices and present oppressions that confront them; Vancouver's African-American community that was uprooted from nearby Hogan's Alley mid-twentieth century; the First Nations of British Columbia who continue to resist the colonial violence imposed upon them; and of course the low-income residents of the Downtown Eastside who face displacement, prejudice and contempt from the government charged with protecting them -- all of these groups will be represented, celebrated and protected by this beacon of the people. 

The Survivors' Totem Pole will, says Morrison, "lay down a path for those who are coming later." Putting the past behind us is the colonial way of thinking, he tells me. "The past is in front of me. I can see it. It is like a river that I can see downstream. I am sitting on a boat at the stern. Our ancestors laid that path for us so we have to make sure we're going in a straight line. 

"That's what we're trying to do."


The Kickstarter campaign for the Survivors' Totem Pole can be found here. The campaign runs until August 3.

Image: www.survivorstotempole.wordpress.com

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