One thousand-year-old cedar carved for those who struggle against oppression
By Greg Waldock, Staff Writer
On November 3, a potlatch celebration was held to commemorate the raising of the eight-metre Survivors’ Pole at Pigeon Park, which is on the corner of East Hastings Street and Carrall Street. The celebration was held with the permission of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations, on whose unceded territory Vancouver sits, and followed both Coast Salish and Haida potlatch traditions. It included ceremonial storytelling, drums, singing, and dancing from members of many First Nations groups in BC.
Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson and several First Nations and city community leaders attended the ceremony.
The totem pole was raised to remember and encourage people who suffer through oppression and injustice, both in the past and in modern society. Among advocates present at the raising were LGBTQ+ groups, survivors of Japanese internment camps, those affected by gentrification and poverty in the Downtown Eastside, and other groups/organizations that represent the underprivileged in Vancouver.
The project was started by Bernie Williams, known by her Haida name Skundaal, a master carver who trained under famed Haida artist Bill Reid. Funding officially began with a 2013 Kickstarter campaign, and was initially planning to simply raise awareness for discrimination against Indigenous peoples in Canada. The campaign eventually went on to raise $20,000. It quickly became a rallying point for advocacy groups around the city.
“The pole took on a life of its own,” said Skundaal, in a statement with the City of Vancouver. “Everybody is down here for a reason.”
The Sacred Circle Society, based in the Downtown Eastside, is an Aboriginal rights advocacy group comprised of chiefs representing nations ranging from Squamish all the way to the Haida.
Skundaal, whose mother was murdered exactly 39 years ago on the day of the raising, had been working on the project with them for more than a decade. It’s constructed in a classic Haida style with a bear, a whale, a raven, and topped with a Thunderbird. It is built from a 1,000-year-old cedar, according to the groups’ Kickstarter page.
Full funding was achieved in June of this year with donations and support from the Vancouver Park Board, the City of Vancouver, the Vancouver Moving Theatre, and many local businesses and private donors. The Park Board will be giving Pigeon Park new landscaping over the next few weeks, making the Survivors’ Pole the center of a new community park.