Totem pole project at B.C. jail helping inmates carve out new futures

Click to play video: 'Inmates at B.C. correctional facility carve totem pole as part of the truth and reconciliation project'
Inmates at B.C. correctional facility carve totem pole as part of the truth and reconciliation project
A group of inmates at a Vancouver Island correctional facility are taking part in a unique totem pole project for truth and reconciliation. Kylie Stanton has that story. – Aug 17, 2022

With every strike of a hammer and chisel, a 340-year-old cedar log in a Vancouver Island jail is transforming into a symbol.

The final product, expected by the end of the summer, will be a totem pole, featuring figures that represent strength, healing, community, and family.

“We all need a little healing here. If you think about it, we’re here because we did something wrong, or something traumatizing happened to us and we took a wrong path,” Roger Der, one of the inmates participating in the Pole Project at the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre (VIRCC) told Global News.

“This is a way of stepping towards that right path.”

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The project began last summer, and involves inmates spending one day per week learning traditional carving techniques from master carver Tsawout artist Tom LaFortune, his brother Aubrey and Max Henry, the facility’s Indigenous Cultural Liaison.

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“We’re all human,” LaFortune said.

“But it seems to be forgotten because they’re here, so we want to bring that out in them, to let them know, that’s remembered … Everybody is on a first name basis. Everybody is on the same level.”

About 10 inmates from the jail and the Nanaimo Correctional Centre are involved.

VIRCC Warden Richard Singleton said as many as 80 have participated since the project’s inception.

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“The idea of having individuals out in the backyard carving, reconnecting with their culture, on a first-name basis with a level of respect and camaraderie is different from what goes on in a normal day in a correctional centre,” he said.

“It’s about self respect, it’s about equality and it’s about identity.”

Participants are chosen from a pool of inmates who both show interest, and have a clean behavioural record, he said.

The initiative is open to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants.

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“These guys are accomplishing something, they actually get to see the fruits of their labour as the pole takes shape. They’re getting connected with culture.”

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Inmate Brandon Castle said the weekly carving sessions are something to look forward to, and offer a way to be productive.

“(We’re) creating something that forever into the future we can come and appreciate, maybe when it’s erected in the front,” he said.

“We’re all trying to rehabilitate.”

Singleton said he’d like to see the project expanded to other provincial institutions.

It’s an idea Public Safety Minister and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth appeared to take seriously.

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“These are the kinds of programs and initiatives that we are as a government, obviously want to support and want to see happen,” he said. “This is putting corrections back in corrections.”

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Some participants have gone on to pursue carving after their release, Singleton said.

That may be the case with Der, who said LaFortune has offered him the opportunity to spend some time at his carving shack once he gets out.

“It’s a good way to lose yourself and not lose yourself, clear your head, it’s good for your soul,” he said.

Once the totem is complete, it will be raised in the facility’s outdoor exercise yard this fall.

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