Survivors Totem Pole marks resilience in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside

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Survivors' totem pole, DTES Vancouver, B.C.

Grey skies did not deter the hundreds of people who marched together through Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) to celebrate the installment of the Survivors Totem Pole at Pigeon Park, Saturday, November 5. 

Carved out of a 1000-year-old 27-foot cedar tree by community members of the DTES, the Survivors Totem Pole is a symbol of community survival, resistance, persistence, and inclusion. 


The Survivors Totem Pole project began three years ago as a grassroots community art and action project to honour survivors of injustice and strengthen the bond of solidarity between members of the DTES community and the Coast Salish people, who are largely marginalized. 


Canada's long-standing history of colonization and racism is evident in the DTES where its residents have been impacted by gentrification and displacement, Indian Residential Schools, the Chinese Head Tax, Race Riots, Komagatu Maru, Japanese internment camps during the Second World War, and the destruction of Hogan's Alley, home to Vancouver's Black community. 

(Lenée Son/rabble)


Many women from the DTES, mostly Aboriginal, have gone missing or been murdered.



"I can tell you horror stories that have happened that we have witnessed down here," said Skundaal (Bernie Williams), the master carver who led the project. "There's still women going missing. There's still homelessness down here."


Skundaal, who is the only female apprentice of renowned Haida carver, Bill Reid, hopes that the totem pole can provide a ray of hope for the community. 



"I hope that this pole signifies the spirit of strength, hope, and unity for everybody," she said. "Look at it today -- look at how this pole has brought so many diverse people in this community, and I hope that when they do come by here that they do see this is magic. This is about the community."


Vancouver's first First Nations woman elected to the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia and B.C.'s NDP MLA representative for Vancouver-Mount Pleasant, Melanie Mark, explained that the Survivors Totem Pole is necessary for the community to heal. 


"These are the streets [of] mothers, daughters, sons, fathers, uncles -- people that in a lot of ways have suffered a broken heart from things like colonization, from institutions like residential schools," said Mark. "So, we have a lot of healing to do and that totem pole is going to give us the medicine that we need -- that good medicine to remind us that we are worthy, that our lives are valuable and meaningful. It’s about transformation."

Led by elders, matriarchs, and hereditary chiefs, volunteers carried the totem pole from Skundaal's carving studio on West Cordova to Pigeon Park. City of Vancouver employees installed the totem pole while the crowd watched on. The pole was lifted just as the rain began to pour, the crowd roared and celebrations began.


The strong wind and heavy rain did not dampen the spirit of the crowd. Celebrations continued and included a potlatch ceremony with Coast Salish and Haidia protocols followed by intercommunity storytelling, refreshments, and entertainment. "This is typical Haida weather," said Wad Gadagaang. "In fact, this is the time when our clans would potlach and sing our beautiful songs."

Humaskin Kee, a First Nations man who had come to watch the pole rising, said he was filled with joy to witness the pole rising.

 "I'm enjoying what I can with this rain that comes down to give me the blessings of the great creator."

Lenee Son is a freelance multimedia journalist based in metro Vancouver. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @LeneeSon


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Photos: Lenée Son

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