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Go forward with courage

September 05, 2017

​How a kyactn pole can bring us together

By Brent Richter / North Shore News


Master carver Darren Yelton works with district principal Brad Baker and Artists for Kids director Yolande Martinello on the kyactn, which North Vancouver students will soon join in on. Photo Mike Wakefield, North Shore News

Chunks of red cedar fly as master carver Darren Yelton digs his adz into a 350-year-old log outside the North Vancouver school district office.

Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.

The log was donated by the Squamish Nation from a site in the Elaho Valley, the centre of Aboriginal anti-logging protests in the 1990s. Yelton’s fellow carvers erected a pole in the middle of the gravel road into the valley to halt the work trucks. It worked. Today, only Squamish Nation carvers are allowed access to the logs already felled.

The pole Yelton is working on today, however, should carry a different message. In time, the four-and-a-half-tonne tree will be a kyactn, or welcome pole. Standing six metres tall near the entrance to the school district’s Education Services Centre on Lonsdale Avenue, its arms will be warmly outstretched for all who pass by.

Welcome Pole 06.jpg
photo Mike Wakefield, North Shore News

“When people come to the building, the first thing they’ll see will be a Coast Salish welcome pole, which traditionally was always in front of our longhouses and big houses to welcome people in a good way to the territory,” said Brad Baker, district principal and a Squamish Nation member.

Yelton, who also goes by his Aboriginal name K’na’kweltn~, chose this log out of hundreds specifically for its age, size and the texture of the grain. Its rings are tight together, indicating it’s a “female” tree, which is ideal for carving.

“It shows that it’s going to last a lifetime,” he said. “I said ‘Yup, this is the log right here.’”

The school district has arranged for the welcome pole to be carved, in conjunction with Grade 5 students in the Artists for Kids program, as a means to help heal the wounds the educational system made in the lives of Indigenous people in Canada, and for non-Indigenous students to learn about the lives of people a generation ago whom the school system scarcely acknowledged.

Soon, the log will be brought into the lobby of the Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art and over the next semester, upwards of 2,000 students will come in and meet Yelton as he works on the poll for four hours a day until January when it is expected to be finished. The plan is to hold a pole-raising ceremony on National Aboriginal Day in June 2018.

The students won’t just be watching and listening, however, but also getting hands on.

“I let the kids pick up the chisel and do a few notches and take a few chisel marks out of the totem pole to slowly shape it down to what it is,” he said. “Oh, they love it.”

He’s done this kind of work for the school district before, including two welcome poles the Grade 12 students at Handsworth Secondary helped with. Yelton gets a kick out of seeing the students respond to the pole when it’s done.

“That gives them a good feeling for themselves. When they are adults, 20 or 25  (years from now) they’ll drive by their old school and the first thing they’re going to look at is that totem pole and say ‘Hey, I participated on that totem pole project.’”

Eventually, Baker would like to see all schools in the district have their own authentic Coast Salish welcome pole.

When the new welcome pole is complete, it will feature a human figure, similar to the Ambleside welcome pole. The headcrest will feature a bald eagle, a symbol of power and prestige, as well as a grizzly, which represents strength. The base of the pole will feature designs from both Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish designers. Both nations have given their blessing to the project, in keeping with the school district’s mandate of reconciliation.

There are two goals with the project: for the school district’s 670 Indigenous students, to instill pride in their identity and heritage – something the school system once sought to stamp out. And for the non-Indigenous students, bridging the gap between the true history of North Vancouver and what the school system has traditionally taught them.

The kyactn is also, in some ways, a symbol of the efforts being made inside the school district’s walls and classrooms where a new curriculum is being developed and rolled out with a focus on the Indigenous experience.

Much of it stems from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which had a number of specific calls to action regarding the education system. Among them: Developing and implementing Kindergarten to Grade 12 curriculum and learning resources on Aboriginal peoples in Canadian history, and the history and legacy of residential schools, and building student capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy and mutual respect.

Baker had a hand in writing the curriculum that updates the old Eurocentric content of the arts, academics and athletics in North Vancouver schools.

“I was born and raised in North Vancouver but I was never taught myself about the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations – that this land is theirs and how they lived off the land for thousands of years,” he said. “Part of what we want to do now is for all of our students to learn the local place history – from pre-contact to colonization to how colonization impacted the local First Nations, to where we are now with reconciliation and how we can move forward as a society. To make it better for all of our students.”

The district has an Aboriginal education team, composed of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal members who vet the material to ensure it’s age appropriate.

“We’re not going to talk about the multitude of abuses of residential school survivors to Grade 2s or 3s or 4s,” Baker said.

Instead, when learning about residential schools, they may be asked to make a list of five things in their home that they love and then imagine having it all taken away. In Grade 10, students learn more about the sexual, physical and emotional abuse endemic in the residential school system. In English courses, instead of reading The Outsiders or To Kill a Mockingbird, students are learning from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie or Monkey Beach by Edin Robinson.

“What we want all students to get from these changes is for them to walk out of our schools having a strong understanding, and also increase their knowledge base of the Indigenous people of the area and how they contribute to our society and always have,” Baker said. “Our students of this era, I think, are getting a broader concept of how society really is. Thirty years ago, in general terms, Indigenous people were looked upon as non-contributors to creating a better Canada. That’s a change in philosophy where we see Indigenous people as positive contributors to society.”

Not everyone is sold on the idea, Baker admits, but he asks his teachers, staff and students to “go forward with courage.”

Welcome Pole 09.jpg
A 350-year-old red cedar rests outside the North Vancouver school district office, waiting to be carved into a six-metre welcome pole. photo Mike Wakefield, North Shore News

“We do have some detractors in our community and across the district and what we say to them, as an educator (and) as an Indigenous person, is our obligation is to give all of our students the opportunity to learn all aspects of Canadian society, including an Indigenous focus,” he said.

Even with the best of intentions and the curriculum to achieve it, it may take longer than the lifespan of Yelton’s kyactn pole to achieve the ultimate goals of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But progress is being made. Baker’s father attended St. Paul’s Indian Residential School, which stood where St. Thomas Aquinas Regional Secondary now stands.

“My dad is a residential school survivor so he had an awful experience. My education was still better than his. And the generation today, when they leave Grade 12, I know that their experience will be way better than mine was,” he said.

Baker quotes Sen. Murray Sinclair, an Ojibwa, former judge and chairman of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to illustrate the scope of the problem.

“(Sinclair) said it was 150 years of atrocity towards Indigenous people. It’s going to take 150 years to correct it. That’s seven generations. It’s not going to happen overnight. We’d all like it to happen overnight but we know it’s a process where Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people are learning at the same time how we move forward as partners,” he said.

Much as intergenerational patience will be necessary to correct an intergenerational problem, B.C. is probably leading Canada in reconciliation efforts in the education system and North Vancouver’s school district is among the most active in the province, Baker said.

Back outside the school district office, Yelton continues chipping away at the old growth log as it slowly becomes a kyactn pole. In the Squamish language, kyactn means “I hold my arms out to you and I welcome you to this sacred area.”

“It’s to show all the students and to let them know that on Mother Earth here, we’re all created equal and we’re all like brothers and sisters and we welcome each other to each other’s territory,” he said. “A symbol of welcome and peace and friendship to hold each other up and keep us together as brothers and sisters.”

Welcome Pole 11.jpg
photo Mike Wakefield, North Shore News

© 2017 North Shore News. Click here to read the full article, originally published in the North Shore News.