Totem Pole Project at BC Jail Helps Inmates Forge New Futures


With every blow of a hammer and chisel, a 340-year-old cedar log in a Vancouver Island prison is transformed into a symbol.

The final product, expected by the end of the summer, will be a totem pole, featuring characters that represent strength, healing, community and family.

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“We all need a bit of healing here. If you think about it, we are here because we did something wrong, or something traumatic happened to us and we took a wrong path”, Roger Der, one of the inmates participating in the Pole project at the Correctional Center Vancouver Island Regional Council (VIRCC) told Global News.

“It’s a way to move forward on this right path.”


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The project began last summer and involves inmates spending one day a week learning traditional carving techniques from master Tsawout carver Tom LaFortune, his brother Aubrey and Max Henry, the Native Cultural Liaison ‘establishment.

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“We’re all human,” LaFortune said.

“But that seems to be forgotten because they’re here, so we want to bring that out in them, let them know, it’s remembered… Everyone’s on a first name basis. Everyone’s on the same level.”

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About 10 inmates from the Nanaimo Jail and Correctional Center are involved.

VIRCC director Richard Singleton said up to 80 people have participated since the project began.

“The idea of ​​having individuals in the backyard sculpting, reconnecting with their culture, by name with a level of respect and camaraderie is different from what happens on a normal day in a correctional facility,” did he declare.

“It’s about self-respect, it’s about equality and it’s about identity.”

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Participants are chosen from a pool of inmates who show interest and have a clean behavioral record, he said.

The initiative is open to Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants.

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“These guys are accomplishing something, they’re actually seeing the fruits of their labor as the pole takes shape. They’re connecting with the culture.


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Inmate Brandon Castle said the weekly sculpting sessions are something to look forward to and provide a way to be productive.

“(We) are creating something that we can enjoy forever in the future, maybe when it’s erected up front,” he said.

“We are all trying to rehabilitate ourselves.”

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Singleton said he would like to see the project expanded to other provincial institutions.

It’s an idea that Public Safety Minister and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth seems to take seriously.

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“These are the kinds of programs and initiatives that we as a government are, that we obviously want to support and that we want to see happen,” he said. “It’s putting corrections back into corrections.”


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Some participants continued carving after their release, Singleton said.

Perhaps that’s the case with Der, who said LaFortune gave him the opportunity to hang out at his sculpting shack when he got out.

“It’s a good way to get lost and not get lost, to clear your head, it’s good for the soul,” he said.

Once completed, the pole will be erected in the facility’s outdoor exercise yard this fall.

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