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Why York school board felled a 43-year-old totem pole: Paradkar

The totem pole was created by students of a Stouffville elementary school in 1974 and was removed last week after a parent complained.

Students at Summitview Public School created a totem pole that was erected in 1974. Last week, the pole was removed after a parent complained.

Mke Barrett / Metro Order this photo

Students at Summitview Public School created a totem pole that was erected in 1974. Last week, the pole was removed after a parent complained.

The removal of a 43-year-old totem pole from one of its schools has left the York Region District School Board stranded between the wrath of townspeople who frame the action as political correctness gone too far and a parent irate that it “allowed such a racist symbol to remain standing for so long.”

The totem pole was installed in 1974, says a local newspaper, the fruit of months of labour by the Grade 6 students of Summitview Public School in the once-sleepy bedroom community of Stouffville, some 50 kilometres north of Toronto.

The students worked under the guidance of their history teacher, Bernadine Mumford, who told the Stouffville Sun-Tribune that she was focused on explaining the damage French explorer Samuel de Champlain, who founded Quebec City, did to Indigenous people.

A few weeks ago, a parent complained. On Sept. 29, the school board sent out a letter to parents.

“Dear Families,” it read. “This decision was made with the support of senior staff and after consultation with the local Trustee and Indigenous leaders in our closest community and partner in education, the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation.”

The trouble was the pole, a sacred object for the Indigenous nations of the west coast, was created without their input or consultation.

“Here’s our feeling,” said Lauri Hoeg, a band councillor for the culture and education portfolio for the Chippewas of Georgina Island.

“It was made around 40 years ago. That kind of time when the teacher who did the project with her kids was not doing it with any ill intent but was doing it as a way to educate her classroom.”

“Fast forward 40 years later we know differently now.”

She offers this parallel: “There was no ill intent when we didn’t put on seatbelts. But you got to put them on now. We fix things as we become aware of them. We move forward in such a good way if we don’t get all up in arms.”

The pole was taken down between 5.15 p.m. and 5.45 p.m. that evening, the board says.

The opposition to removing the pole has been strong and furious.

“It’s absolutely shameful to be disregarding a piece of local history and Canadian symbolism. Just pathetic,” said one person on a local Facebook group. I am not naming the commenters because it is a closed group and not a public one.

Other comments went like this:

“It wasn’t hurting ANYONE for 40 years…”

“An opportunity to educate has been removed.”

“It was a landmark, a sign of support and respect for our Indigenous friends and something that should have been regarded, always, as sacred, NOT offensive.”

Perhaps the creation of the pole meant no disrespect, but bereft of the solemn significance totem poles carry for its makers, how could this one be a sign of respect?

The school board acknowledged in its email that the pole was initially constructed with positive intentions.

However, it said, “our understanding of how cultural appropriation affects our learning environments has developed significantly.”

The concern over the erasure of local history is also rich with irony, exemplary of a rather large blind spot that covers up the threat to the existence of totem poles from colonizers, the federal government and Christian missionaries. Totem poles, so geographically rich with meaning, were taken out and placed in museums around the world.

“The totem pole can be seen as a symbol of ongoing survival and resistance to cultural and territorial encroachment,” says the Canadian Encyclopedia.

Poles commissioned by non-Indigenous peoples were, and still are, considered culturally insensitive, it says.

This suggests an opportunity to educate has not been removed. On the contrary, the removal has created that opportunity.

But there are differences of opinion over why the pole was taken down.

“We agreed with the board that it should come down for a couple of reasons,” says Hoeg.

“One, it was offensive to a First Nation parent. The other was it was a health and safety hazard.”

The health and safety aspect — Hoeg said two school board staff touched it and “found it rickety” — is not mentioned in the school board letter.

“The reason it came down was because of cultural appropriation,” said Drew McNaughton, superintendent of education.

The parent who complained says the existence of the pole was racist.

Aaron Detlor identifies as Kanienkehaka, (or the Mohawk people of Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy) in a letter to the school principal.

“It may have been raised with good intent,” he said to me by email on Thursday. “But however benign or benevolent the intention, racism is still racism … What I am really looking for from the board is an acknowledgement that the totem pole itself is/was racist and that it was removed on the basis that it is/was racist.”

“The board needs to … apologize not necessarily to me personally but to the broader Indigenous community.”

He had broached the topic of an apology earlier with the board.

“We didn’t feel that was necessary,” Hoeg said on Wednesday. “These kinds of things are going to pop up in schools.”

She advocates cultural competency training for teachers.

Then there was the issue of why the school board consulted with the Chippewas in the first place.

“Are the Chippewas of Georgina Island a collective rights holder?” asked Detlor in a pointed email to McNaughton. “Why are you not consulting with the Haudenosaunee given that I and my daughter are Haudenosaunee?”

One commenter on Facebook wrote, “Asking the Chippewa if there should be a Totem pole in Stouffville, is like asking the Belgians if Chinese food should be sold in Argentina. Totem poles are a part Pacific coast Indigenous nations’ culture. If there is any “consultation” to be done, call upon the Haida or other west coast nations whose culture is being “appropriated.”

McNaughton said, “This totem pole was created without any consultation or involvement of members of Indigenous nations. If it had been built in partnership with them, we would have asked them.”

“Because it’s in our territory (McNaughton) wanted to check with us to see what we felt should be done,” said Hoeg. “I think it was handled well.”

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