The Kwakiutl Bear totem pole at the Parksville & District Chamber of Commerce, carved for the Canadian Centennial in 1967, is rotting from the inside and needs to be renovated or removed, said the stepson of original Kwakwaka’wakw carver Jack James. — J.R. Rardon photo

Parksville approves new totem pole

50-year-old Centennial pole may be renovated, donated

Fifty years after receiving a Kwakwaka’wakw totem pole for Canada’s Centennial, the City of Parksville is ready for a replacement.

And the stepson of the original carver will do the honours.

Parksville council voted during its regular meeting Monday, July 17, to approve a $75,000 expenditure for a new pole, which would likely be raised on June 21, 2018, during a traditional ceremony on National Indigenous Peoples Day (formerly Aboriginal Day).

The city’s Kwakiutl Bear pole, carved by the late Kwakwaka’wakw carver Jack James and currently installed outside the Parksville &District Chamber of Commerce and Visitors’ Centre on Highway 19A, is rotting from the inside, CAO Debbie Comis told councillors Monday.

Council agreed to another $25,000 to restore the Kwakiutl Bear pole if it can, indeed, be restored. It would then be donated to a museum for display in an indoor location out of the weather.

Part of the money, $32,000, already exists in Parksville’s share of Canada 150 project funding, said Comis. The $32,000 can be applied to both the new pole and the restoration.

“The Mayor recently requested I look into the status of the the B.C. Centennial totem pole,” said Comis. “I met with the son of the original carver and he agreed to come and look at it.

“It appears there’s serious rot, water damage, bug infestation and damage from woodpeckers. Staff is bringing this forward as a verbal report because of the urgency.”

Kwakwaka’wakw master carver Tanis (Simon James), who now lives in Campbell River, will be commissioned to create the city’s new pole, which Comis suggested be erected for display in an indoor location.

He studied under Jack James, his mother’s first husband, and travelled to Parksville recently to perform an inspection on the current pole.

“It’s got some pretty serious core rot,” said Tanis, a residential school survivor who now uses his tribal name. “It’s pretty cancerous, and it’s spreading badly.

“A cedar log like that, standing in the rain and snow and ice and sun, it rots from the inside out.”

To determine whether the pole can be salvaged, Tanis told The NEWS, he will need to remove it from its current spot and lay it on its back for restoration engineers to assess. If it can be saved, Tanis will perform the work and the city would then look to donate the pole and await the delivery of the new pole next spring.

Coun. Leanna Salter questioned the wisdom of the city paying for restoration of a pole that it plans to donate.

“If it goes to a museum, wouldn’t they be responsible for restoring it?” Salter asked. “The Aboriginal people, when they have a pole that gets to this condition, they let it go down. The idea of restoring it makes no sense.”

Comis said the existing pole has already been restored twice — once by Jack James in 1991, at what was then the Victoria Provincial Museum (now the Royal British Columbia Museum), and again in 2002 by Tanis, in Alert Bay.

“We think there’s a certain amount of pride and caring in trying to preserve (Jack James’) legacy,” said Comis. “That’s if it can be restored at all.”

If the pole cannot be salvaged, the city will retain the $25,000 approved for the restoration and will budget only the $75,000 for the new pole, with at least part of that funding expected to come from outside sources.

“If council is in agreement, it may direct staff to proceed with the totem pole, to submit funding applications to the appropriate groups and contract carver Simon James,” Comis said.

Council voted unanimously in favour of the recommendation, with Coun. Sue Powell and Coun. Kirk Oates absent.

No date has been set for the assessment of the existing Kwakiutl Bear, said Tanis, but he is looking forward to returning to Parksville to see the project through.

“I’d like to be there with the restoration engineers when they remove the pole,” he said. “And I just had a thought about the possibility that not all of the pole is suffering from rot. There are parts of the outside of the pole that are painted and are still in great shape, and a person could take those parts and make great art pieces for a wall.”