Language revitalization pole to stay in Port Alberni

Strong community interest leads to change of plans, says First Nations Education Foundation

BY MIKE YOUDS

Special to the News

As carvers transformed an 800-year-old cedar log into a symbol of Indigenous language revitalization, community interest in the project was reshaping the pole’s destiny.

First Nations Education Foundation (FNEF), facilitator of the high-profile project, has responded to calls from the community to keep the pole in the Alberni Valley rather than have it installed at the University of Victoria (UVic) as originally planned.

“We are really pleased with the way the Port Alberni community has rallied around the project and how they’ve made it their own and taken it to heart,” said Scott Jeary, executive director of FNEF.

READ: Port Alberni language pole becomes ‘spiritual journey’

The pole project was conceived two years ago by FNEF as a means of honouring the International Year of Indigenous Languages, declared by UNESCO for 2019. Les Doiron of Ucluelet First Nation, who serves as CEO of the Vancouver-based, non-profit foundation, approached master carver Tim Paul, setting wheels in motion. The log was located near Bamfield and trucked to Port Alberni’s waterfront last winter. Since then, Paul and a team of carvers have brought the pole to final stages of completion.

Jeary said the initial idea was to install the pole on UVic grounds, where it would stand in a prominent location seen by many. They wanted the pole to inform people about the effort to revitalize Indigenous cultures, plus they felt UVic could maintain the pole over time.

READ: 800-year-old carving log arrives in Port Alberni

Instead, the process of creating the pole began to anchor the project in Port Alberni, a fitting destination as a hub for Nuu-chah-nulth nations, Jeary said.

“The thing is, the people in Port Alberni have really become attached to it,” he explained. “It made sense for it to be there.”

From the outset, UVic was supportive of the project and had no objection to the change. At no point was there an expectation of funding from the university, Jeary said, suggesting that rumour arose due to the level of local interest.

“The folks at UVic have been great throughout the project and incredibly supportive. When we advised them of the broad, increasing support in the Port Alberni community for the pole to remain there, they were 100 percent onside with the new plan and I want to thank them for that,” Jeary said.

“UVic supports the foundation’s decision now to pursue a different location for the pole,” said Jennifer Vornbrock, UVic’s executive director of community and government relations. “We continue to be very interested in a positive outcome for this project. We also remain deeply committed to actively listening to Indigenous artists and communities.”

More than $200,000 has been raised toward a projected cost of $428,000 for the pole project, Jeary said.

Once carving is completed, a traditional ceremony will take place to close the eyes of the pole and lay it at rest until the eyes are opened again when it is raised. They expect the pole will be erected next spring after discussions with First Nations and others in the community.

The non-profit Owl’s Path Canada Foundation presents a pole fundraising gala Nov. 22 at the Italian Hall. The event features Indigenous eco-fashion designer NoMinNoU and works by Haida Gwaii artist Eric Parnell.

“For it to remain in Port Alberni would be a good tourism attraction and would also bring awareness to Indigenous language and culture,” said Mary Mason of Owl’s Path. Beaver Creek Co-op and Vancouver Island University have stepped up as gala sponsors, she said.

Information and tickets are available online through Eventbrite, Kingsway Pub or Owl’s Path Tourism, a business that just opened an office at 2975 Third Ave.

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