Artist Charles Joseph (1959) of the Kwakiutl Nation of the West Coast of Canada will unveil his work Residential School Totem Pole to be raised in the ancestral territory of Kanien’keha:ka, the nation to which it pays homage, in the context of an official opening ceremony for the work. This totem pole, displayed for the first time, will form part of La Balade pour la Paix – An Open-Air Museum, an exhibition of public art, designed and organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts with the support of McGill University as part of the official programme celebrating Montreal’s 375th anniversary
This monumental piece (21.45 metres high) will open the exhibition route along Sherbrooke Street West in front of the MMFA’s Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion. The totem pole is a tribute to the First Nations children, of whom the artist Charles Joseph was one, who were taken away from their families and sent to the residential schools of religious communities. On May 29, 2015 the Canadian government acknowledged that these children had been, between 1820 and 1996, the victims of a cultural genocide.
Charles Joseph states: “Presenting this pole is for all Canadians, not just residential school survivors. This is my reconciliation, and my story is on the pole. The story is not just about Charles Joseph, it’s about everyone who went through it. I need to tell the story in this form, but it is about survivors from across Canada.”
The totem pole is a symbol of reconciliation and commemoration. It embodies a strong sense of the identity and pride of the Kwakiutl Nation of the West Coast of Canada. Joseph’s Residential School Totem Pole depicts, from the bottom to the top: the members of the family of the sponsor of the Totem; the cedar ring symbolizing safety; the wild woman responsible for the traditional culture; the killer whale, the guardian of memory; the crow representing the alliance of Church and State; the bear for its strength and wisdom; the Arctic fox, the witness of the past; the Kulus, the great black ravens that according to the legend created the islands of the West Coast of Canada by dropping pebbles into the ocean; and at the top the two-headed snake with its wings unfurled in the shape of a cross.
According to Nathalie Bondil, the Museum’s Director General and Chief Curator, “We are deeply moved today to unveil this new totem pole by Charles Joseph in the context of the celebrations. Only six of the First Nations of the West Coast ever carved these works… and there are even fewer today because the technical and artistic skills required to make them are so demanding. Traditionally the gigantic witnesses to their history perpetuated the story of important events for the Native Peoples. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada estimates that 150,000 children were torn from their families during the past century, complying with the government’s assimilation policy. Telling the story of this tragedy through the powerful artistry of one of our leading creators is essential in the perspective of our new century.”