It was one of those beautiful mornings that make us all realise why we live on the Saanich Peninsula. The sun was brilliant, and the sky so blue it reflected onto the calm sea with hardly a breath of wind. Accompanied by Sandy McElroy, our photographer, and Jane Fox, SPH Aboriginal Liaison Nurse, I set off on what was to become a most exciting and fascinating adventure to learn about the W̱SÁNEĆ Carving Project.
Western Forest Products donated the four old growth red cedar logs to the project. The poles will showcase the expertise of the men chosen to represent the four First Nation communities on the Peninsula. The logs came from Port Alberni, and were blessed by Cheryl Thomas and Robert Dennis Jr. of the Huu-ay-aht First Nations, upon delivery to each carving site.
We began our journey with Charles Elliott at the Tsartlip Village [WJOL̵EL̵P] in Brentwood Bay. There are approximately fourteen hundred people in the Tsartlip Nation. Charles welcomed us into his workshop where the walls are covered with tools, beautiful pictures of wildlife, and masks he carves when he is not busy with poles. He’s the first of his family to be a carver, and his modesty is indicative of his character.
Formerly employed by the Government as a Certified Log Scaler, Charles knows good logs from bad, and was delighted to receive a beautiful piece of old growth red cedar, knot free. Good carvers only work on old growth timber. Such is the reputation of Charles; as a Master Carver, the University of Victoria sends students to him for mentorship. These young people benefit from his knowledge and years of experience, and Charles receives no remuneration. Charles began carving at the age of twelve, and has been selling his carvings for forty-nine years.
Charles explained the design of his pole. His pole has a marine theme to celebrate the Salish Sea which connects all living beings in this territory. The frog [WEXES] sitting at the bottom is a guardian creature who announces change and new beginnings. They are at home on land and water and connect the two worlds.
The orca [KELL̵OLEMEC’N is the ruler of the Salish Sea that surrounds the W̱SÁNEĆ Peninsula and is visible from the hospital. In Coast Salish culture, orcas are the most respected creature of the sea, revered for their intelligence and power. They also set a good example for humans, as they protect their young and stay true to their pod. The drummer [WDILEM] and orca sing a traditional welcoming song to all people coming to the hospital. The kingfisher [T̸ETĆELE], diving down from above, demonstrates its prowess as a fisherman and shore keeper in Coast Salish culture. They watch over the shores from the skies, trees and cliffs, and protect other living beings by announcing the arrival of visitors with their call.
From Brentwood Bay we travelled towards Ardmore to visit Mark Henry of the Pauquachin First Nation [BOḰEĆEN]. Mark and his brother Herman are two of ten siblings, all of whom are working throughout BC. At forty years old, Mark is the youngest son and, according to Herman, has always worked with his hands. In order to get the inspiration he needed to carve his fifteen foot pole, he spent two days simply walking around the Saanich Peninsula Hospital, listening and observing life at the hospital.
After spending time at the hospital, Mark had the vision needed to create the pole that would represent his people. The pod of orcas [qulΪanumutsun] at the bottom of this totem represents the nurses who work together as a team to skillfully guide, teach and protect their young. The sun [sumshathet] that rises over our land and mountains is for the Elders, because they say they love seeing the sun come up every day. It provides warmth and hope, and enables all living things to grow and thrive. The eagle [Yuḧwelѐ] at the top is there to provide strength and vision to all those who come to the Saanich Peninsula Hospital.
Like Charles, Mark uses a small chainsaw to remove the large pieces of the log, but the real artistry is done by hand. Mark explained that it takes about three months to finish a pole.
Our third visit was with Doug LaFortune and his family members, who live in the Tsawout First Nation [ST̸AUTW]. Doug and his brother Aubrey are carvers who have passed the knowledge and skills to Doug’s son, Bear. All three men are involved in the creation of the Tsawout pole. The log was drying in the sun but had not been yet cleaned of the bark, giving us a greater appreciation for the preparation involved. When asked how many years he has been carving, Doug modestly replied, “about forty.” Combined, the number of years of skill and expertise working on this totem will be eighty-seven, and it will take about six weeks to complete.
This family has been commissioned to send poles all over the world, from Germany to Japan, and the totem pole at the Butchart Gardens was carved in their carving shed. There are no carving schools on Vancouver Island; all knowledge and skill is passed from generation to generation. Doug was hesitant at being called a Master Carver, but Bear assured us that is the correct title for his father, who has taught carving to many. Bear began carving almost as soon as he could walk. We learned from Aubrey that Doug and his wife Kathy are to be the King and Queen at the 39th Elders Gathering taking place in July, 2015.
Doug told us the story behind his pole. A welcoming figure [S’WQENÀ L̵EN] with outstretched hands greets all those who come to the hospital. The lively, spirited otters [SKA’EṮ] swim playfully around the welcoming figure. The stately blue heron [SNEK̵E], keeper of the cool, early morning fog, stands for hours on the shoreline, symbolizing patience and perseverance. The SENĆOŦEN word for blue heron means, “loud noise.” Herons and otters are predominant figures in Coast Salish culture and there are many of them in the W̱SÁNEĆ territory.
The fourth visit we made was to see James Jimmy, with the Tseycum First Nation. James began carving when he was a Grade Eight student at North Saanich School. James’s mother was from Tseycum and his father was from Cowichan. He was initially mentored by a master carver who has passed away, and more recently apprenticed under Charles Elliott from Tsartlip. His first works were small masks but after five or six years he began some larger pieces. He helped create the poles located at Thrifty Foods in Saanichton, the Health Centre at Brentwood Bay and the University of Victoria, under the tutelage of Charles Elliott.
James showed us the miniature model of his pole. The scale he uses is two inches to every foot on the big pole, and like the other carvers, he has been helped by his family. His brother Mike and his son Brian helped with some of the rounding out as did John, who was with him as we spoke.
James’ carving represents the legend of the Tseycum Messenger [WC̸ESES ET]. In ancient times, a man from Tseycum carried messages between villages. He was always accompanied by a wolf [STK A̸ A̸YE], who was his faithful companion. One day, he needed to swim to Salt Spring Island to deliver a message but the wolf would not leave the shore of Tseycum. When the messenger turned to look back from the water, he saw the wolf on the beach. The Creator had turned the wolf into a rock that remains to this day at Tseycum.
One day when James and his brother Mike were working on the pole, the wood quivered as it dried. Mike asked if James had moved the log. James replied that he had not, but he saw that the wolf moved as they were carving. James expects his totem pole could last for one hundred years. He explained that some carvers say a pole should not be repaired but should be left where it is when it eventually falls to the ground, and be replaced by a new pole.
We hope that all four of these poles last for a hundred years and are honoured to have them welcome all patients, family, friends and staff who come to the Saanich Peninsula Hospital.
By Barbara Harwood