Raising Charles Joseph’s Totem in Montreal

'Residential School Totem Pole' carved by artist Charles Joseph from Kwakwaka'wakw Nation, BC, being raised at the Montréal Musée des Beaux Arts 2017
I happened to be passing as the ‘Residential School Totem,’ carved by artist Charles Joseph from Kwakwaka’wakw Nation, BC, was being raised outside the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Of course I had to stop and watch even though it was cold and raining. There were some exciting moments – lifting the totem off the truck bed, manipulating it around a lamppost very near the totem’s designated spot, raising it to vertical – but often more than an hour would go by without anything visible happening although the crew was clearly very busy. It took a day’s work to get the totem in place. (The sunny picture further down was taken the next day!)

'Residential School Totem Pole' carved by artist Charles Joseph from Kwakwaka'wakw Nation, BC, being raised at the Montréal Musée des Beaux Arts

The totem, carved by Charles Joseph on Vancouver Island from a single red cedar, will stand outside the MMBA until October as part of the Montreal 375th celebrations.

While it’s ludicrous to think Montreal’s 375th ‘birthday’ has any meaning for indigenous peoples who of course were here long before, Joseph wanted to make sure the story was part of the celebrations.

For me, Montreal’s birthday is Montreal’s birthday, it’s not ours. But if you’re going to celebrate it, I want our story to be a part of that,” Joseph said. “I want people to know what we went through, but also that we’re alive and we’re still fighting. Montreal Gazette

The Residential School Totem - Charles Joseph

Unlike the traditional poles Joseph has carved, the Residential School Totem Pole adapts Kwakwaka’wakw iconography, as relayed to him by his great-grandfather, to tell a tragic story that shaped Joseph personally. The matriarchal Wild Woman and the bear are present as protective figures in the lives of the 150,000 children committed to the residential schools. The killer whale appears as a symbol of dispersed children and their often transitory lives after leaving the schools. Globe and Mail

The totem is powerful and beautiful. It’s also a reminder of a shameful period in Canada’s history that continues to reverberate. Thousands of people live every day with the on-going impact of the residential schools, with the traumas, sadness and violence and prejudice.

'Healing Reconciliation,' carved by artist Charles Joseph from Kwakwaka'wakw Nation, BC, being raised outside the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

This is the original entrance to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, built in 1912.

Montréal Musée des Beaux Arts + 'Sun' Dale Chihuly

In the top photo you can see the bare bones of Dale Chihuly’s “Sun.” Here it’s fully installed.

To enjoy doors from around the world, visit Norm 2.0’s Thursday Doors.


10 thoughts on “Raising Charles Joseph’s Totem in Montreal

  1. Pingback: Montreal’s Balade pour la Paix/Open Air Museum | Susi Lovell

    • It’s definitely worth checking out. And from 29 May that will be where La Balade de la Paix/Open Air Museum starts (goes along Sherbrooke to McCord) – 67 artworks and 40 large format photos. Should be interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Beautiful totem pole. We have the same awful legacy here in Ireland of similar institutions and residential schools. I have a friend whose brother-in-law was sent to one on medical advice given to the family. He’s in his sixties now and lives with his sister. Even though he received compensation from the government, that doesn’t make any difference to the lasting negative and traumatic effect that place had on him as a child.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, the totem is very beautiful. I noticed a mother taking a photo of her little girl in front of it. It felt a bit odd to see the little girl posing happily when it carries all these sad memories and stories – although there’s nothing there giving its title or explaining the images (e.g., (according to The Globe and Mail) the little white faces are the lost children, the Raven – the trickster – represents the government and church…) All these sad stories around the world. I remember watching a terrific (and terrifically sad) Australian movie quite a while ago (something like “Rabbit Fence”) about a little girl determined to escape a similar school and go back home.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Montreal is lucky to have both of these – the totem is temporary and will go to a private owner in October but the Chihuly ‘Sun’ was made possible by donations from Montrealers and a very generous donor. Right now there’s an art walkway being installed all along the street in the picture (Montreal anniversary celebrations) so more art to look forward to!

      Liked by 1 person

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