A crane lifted the latest addition to the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre on Tuesday: a totem pole to acknowledge the Lekwungen lands that the facility sits on.
Between 60 to 80 inmates at the Wilkinson Road Jail helped carve the 340-year-old cedar log into a strikingly tall totem pole, a project that was spearheaded by VIRCC’s Indigenous cultural liaison Max Henry.
“I had the opportunity to meet with the warden at the time and he asked what my one big ask would be,” said Henry.
“The question was simple, just ‘why is there no territorial acknowledgment here for First Nations who preceded the centre being here?’ and snowballed,” he said. “Two-and-a-half years later, here we are now.”
The totem design and carving was led by Tsawout First Nation artist Tom LaFortune, who guided each step of the project.
“I laid it out and guided them through how to carve it,” says LaFortune. “Probably 200, 300 sets of hands that worked on this pole, but to have them do this to this piece of wood [and] for this whole idea to come to fruition is just amazing.”
It was a chance for inmates and First Nations leaders to work hand-in-hand to acknowledge a location that historically was a gathering place for the Lekwungen-speaking peoples
“It’s a program that, like I’ve said from the start, puts corrections back into the ministry of corrections,” said LaFortune.
For all involved, seeing the totem pole finally standing was a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
“They thought I was kind of crazy when I wanted to do this project when it first began and here we are now,” said Henry.
“It’s standing now…and to see it standing is remarkable.”