When Sherry McCarthy addressed a large crowd at Vancouver Island University late last week, she was gripped with emotion.
“I really felt overwhelmed with the community support,” McCarthy told the News Bulletin. “I did not expect that many people.”
For the last year, McCarthy has been the driving force behind a unique initiative called the VIU Totem Pole Project.
When completed, the project will see three totem poles representing the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Kwakwaka’wakw Territories erected in front of the school’s Shq’apthut building.
McCarthy, who also happens to be the president of VIU’s student union, created the project as a way to bring people from all walks of life together.
“I was hoping that we could bring aboriginal people and non-aboriginal people together to have a learning experience,” McCarthy said. “I just recognized that the gathering place needed to be indigenized not just on the inside but on the outside as well.”
This past Thursday, the university unveiled the first two totem poles at an official ceremony, where McCarthy gave an emotional speech.
“This is a momentous occasion for VIU,” McCarthy said at the ceremony. “These poles demonstrate our commitment to the path to reconciliation.”
The totem poles, which represent the major First Nations language groups on Vancouver Island, unveiled during Thursday’s ceremony were ones representing the Coast Salish and Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations.
“A big part of this process has been honouring traditions and cultures of First Nations people of this area,” McCarthy said at the ceremony. “Throughout the past year we have ensured that the protocols have been followed and we have had the opportunity to conduct ceremonies that haven’t been performed in years.”
McCarthy, who is part of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation, hopes the poles can be a conversation starter for passersby.
“I hope they ask questions about First Nations,” McCarthy said.
The totem pole representing Coast Salish was carved by Snuneymuxw’s Noel Brown while the Nuu-chah-nulth pole was carved by Qwaya Sam of the Ahousaht First Nation.
“It was an honour and a pleasure to be chosen to do it,” Brown said.
According to McCarthy, the carvers were selected through a process determined by the City of Nanaimo’s Arts and Heritage Committee.
Brown has been an artist and carver in Nanaimo for years. His grandfather, great grandfather and his uncles were all carvers.
“They were better than me,” Brown said. “Probably better than I will ever be.”
The trees used to make the poles were donated by Timberwest, Island Timberlands and Western Forest Products.
During the project, Brown worked with VIU students.
“It was fun,” Brown said. “They came and watched and some of them carved and even a few of them said they wanted to become carvers, so that made it really enjoyable.”
McCarthy says the project turned out better than expected.
“I am speechless,” she said. “I don’t know if there are any words to explain how amazing the end results are.”
The unveiling of the third pole has yet be announced by Vancouver Island University.
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