With open arms, an approximately 5.5-metre Coast Salish Welcome Figure now greets all who enter Ecole Argyle Secondary in North Vancouver.
The Welcome Figure is carved from a red cedar log estimated to be more than 200 years old sourced from the Squamish Valley forest and donated by Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) Nation.
The striking cedar sculpture, at the front entrance of the new school, at 1131 Frederick Rd. in Lynn Valley, was installed in August to acknowledge the school sits on the unceded territories of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and Səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations.
“The key thing for me is the continued understanding and the visible presence of the local First Nations in the North Vancouver School District,” said Brad Baker, North Vancouver School District principal and administrator of Indigenous education.
Baker added that the Argyle carving offered an important opportunity for the school community to learn about the history and culture of the First Nations craft.
The carver behind the masterpiece, Coast Salish artist Sinámkin (Jody Broomfield), began the process months ago by brushing the raw log with boughs to cleanse it for its new role at the school.
Broomfield, whose journey as an artist began in 1999, then began chipping away at the cedar in March, first stripping away the bark, which exposed branches and tree knots he had to work around as well as a fall crack on the top portion of the log.
The Squamish Nation carver worked off-site on the project at the Mosquito Creek Marina for a few months before the pole was brought to the school to be worked on with students in June.
Broomfield was at the school for four weeks, sharing Indigenous history and stories, teaching students the intricate ways of carving, the importance of the cedar tree to local First Nations as well as the reasoning for the design.
During that month, students and staff were able to soak in all Broomfield’s knowledge, as well as help carve and paint the pole.
“For it to really come back to life we wanted the students’ hands on it,” Baker said.
“Being a part of the process of working on a log that's hundreds of years old and seeing that come back to life through a Welcome Figure, and hearing the stories of Indigenous peoples, is so important for students."
Broomfield’s vision for the Welcome Figure was to reflect the general area of the North Shore and the Sea to Sky, with symbols representing the ocean, mountain, and sky, he explained in an interview with North Shore News in March.
The design features the Twin Sisters (the Lions peaks) and a human figure at the top, overseeing the school community.
The finished result is nothing short of “impressive,” said Baker.
Along with the pole’s design representing the beauty of the North Shore, Baker said it also symbolized protection and strength for the school community.
He explained that Welcome Figures – which differ from totem poles in form and function – are used by Coast Salish peoples as markers to welcome visitors to their territories and were usually carved in a gesturing motion.
“Part of a Welcome Figure is to have open arms and welcome individuals to the school,” Baker said.
Broomfield added that they are also "a symbol of peace."
Looking to the future, Baker said the “ultimate goal” was for every school in SD44 to have a Welcome Figure to acknowledge the local First Nations and their territories and to provide positive learning opportunities. Currently, all seven SD44 secondary schools either have Welcome Figures or wall-mounted wood carvings, along with roughly 20 per cent of elementary schools.
Broomfield has created more than 10 public art pieces in North and West Vancouver which can be found on the North Shore Culture Compass, including the Strength and Remembrance Pole for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls at Stella Jo Dean Plaza. He works with many different mediums – wood, glass, ceramic, metal, and stone – to expand his mind and creativity.
His latest Welcome Figure is the finishing touch to the modern, energy-efficient school – which cost more than $61 million and opened to Argyle's 1,300 students in January.
Argyle plans to hold a traditional First Nations ceremony, unveiling and blessing for the pole to reawaken the spirits within the cedar sometime this month (September), but no dates have been finalized yet due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Elisia Seeber is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.