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Inmates say totem pole they helped carve at B.C. jail a catalyst for remarkable change

About 160 at Vancouver Island Regional Corrections Centre participated in first-of-its-kind project

After more than two years since it was started, the totem pole carved by inmates at the Vancouver Island Regional Corrections Centre in Saanich now stands as a reminder to those on the outside that true rehabilitation is happening inside.

Elders, community leaders and local First Nations members converged near the facility’s entrance May 11 to dedicate the pole, as well as honour the roughly 160 inmates who – even if only briefly – helped shape the 340-year-old cedar log from the Jordan River area.

Max Henry, the jail’s Indigenous cultural liaison, said he has seen remarkable change in some of the inmates, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, as a result of participating in the project over the past two years.

“It’s a small step towards bringing back our cultural teachings, the ways of our elders and peoples, as opposed to just putting inmates in a cell and letting them serve time. It gives them a purpose,” he said.

Henry brought forward and led the project with help from Tsawout First Nation carver Tom LaFortune, his two brothers Aubrey and Perry LaFortune and late elder Max Henry Sr., to whom the totem pole was dedicated during Thursday’s ceremony.

Intricately etched into the totem pole are images of the eagle, the owl, the wolf, the frog, the beaver – all important symbols of strength, healing, community and family – and four paddles representing the Coast Salish, Nu-Chah-Nulth, Kwakwaka’wakw peoples and non-First Nation peoples.

“This is a surreal moment for me,” said former inmate Eddy Cliffe, who now works alongside LaFortune in his Greater Victoria workshop.

“This pole changed my life in many different ways – it made me a better friend, it made me a better father and made me a better human all together.”

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Austin Westphal

About the Author: Austin Westphal

Austin Westphal is the newest member to join the Saanich News team.
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