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Inmates building community in B.C. prison through totem pole project

Led by Indigenous master carvers, the project aims to raise the pole in October
Master carver Tom LaFortune (left) and Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre inmate Brandon Castle work on the eagle atop the totem pole. (Austin Westphal/News Staff)

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

Brothers Tom and Aubrey LaFortune of the area’s Tsawout First Nation are teaching participants how to design and carve a totem pole alongside the jail’s Indigenous cultural liaison, Max Henry. The project began last summer to provide inmates with a greater sense of community and connection with the land they’re on – whether Indigenous or not.

It’s helping inmates build practical skills in drawing and woodworking 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’s putting the corrections back in correctional, according to Tom LaFortune.

“One of the rules around the pole is that everyone’s on a first-name basis,” he said, adding some corrections officers have also joined in the carving.

Etched into the totem are images of the eagle, the owl, the wolf, the frog, the beaver – all important symbols of strength, healing, community and family – and four paddles representing the Island’s Salish, Nu-Chah-Nulth, Kwakwaka’wakw and non-First Nation peoples.

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

“Everything about this is a positive experience. This project’s been an eye opener to all the positives that can come out of (it) – whether it’s a short stay or a long stay in here – it just brings you back to your roots,” he said.

“To say the least, it gets us out of that concrete jungle, or cell, for a couple of hours out in the sun. There’s sharing, there’s teaching, there’s learning and a lot of camaraderie.”

ALSO READ: Reclaim the name: Saanich park to return to its Indigenous title, PKOLS

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Austin Westphal

About the Author: Austin Westphal

Austin Westphal is the newest member to join the Saanich News team.
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