Inmates create community in BC prison with totem pole project

Inmates at the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Center in Saanich hope to raise a 41-foot pole carved from a 340-year-old cedar log this fall.

Brothers Tom and Aubrey LaFortune from the area’s Tsawout First Nation teach participants how to design and carve a totem pole alongside the prison’s Aboriginal Cultural Liaison Officer, Max Henry. The project began last summer to give inmates a greater sense of community and a connection to the land they are on, whether they are Indigenous or not.

It helps inmates learn practical drafting and carpentry skills and learn cultural teachings that will prepare them for life on the outside. It’s the first project of its kind for a maximum-security institution and it puts corrections back in corrections, according to Tom LaFortune.

“One of the rules around the pole is that everyone goes by their first name,” he said, adding that some corrections officers also joined in the carving.

Images of the eagle, owl, wolf, frog, beaver are carved into the pole – all important symbols of strength, healing, community and family – and four paddles representing the Salish, Nu -Chah-Nulth and the Kwakwaka of the island. wakw and non-indigenous peoples.

Dion Sam-Joseph, also from the Tsawout First Nation, joined the carving team about three months ago when he watched fellow inmates carve the cedar log from his cell window. Although he hasn’t been on the project too long, he was able to connect with his Indigenous identity and, more importantly, feel human.

“Everything about it is a positive experience. This project has opened your eyes to all the positives that can come from it – whether it’s a short stay or a long stay here – it just takes you back to your roots,” he said. .

“To say the least, it gets us out of this concrete jungle, or cell, for a few hours in the sun. There is sharing, teaching, learning and lots of camaraderie.


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About Michael C. Lovelace

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