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
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.
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Baker had a hand in writing the curriculum that updates the old
Eurocentric content of the arts, academics and athletics in North
“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
“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
Not everyone is sold on the idea, Baker admits, but he asks his teachers, staff and students to “go forward with courage.”
“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,”
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
“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.”