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KELSET school in North Saanich unveils welcome pole on National Indigenous Peoples Day

Carver Doug LaFortune completed pole with the help of his son, wife after suffering a stroke
Kathy and Doug LaFortune stand next to the new welcome pole now gracing the front entrance of KELSET Elementary School in North Saanich. After suffering a stroke, LaFortune completed the piece with the help of his wife, and son, Bear. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)

Carver Doug LaFortune of the Tsawout First Nation was on the verge of tears as he and his wife Kathy unveiled the welcome pole now gracing the front of KELSET Elementary School in North Saanich.

“This is a very big deal,” he said in a quiet, halting voice during a ceremony Monday morning, as he thanked the school for its patience in allowing him to complete the piece with the help of family.

LaFortune suffered a stroke in June 2018, having finished just over half of the project. Carved from an old-growth cedar block weighing some 400 pounds, the pole features a stylized version of the school’s logo – a killer whale – standing on its mouth, topped by a stylized hawk, which LaFortune described as the spirit helper of the killer whale.

“I was just recovering from my stroke and this is one of the first big pieces I managed to get done,” he said after the ceremony. Along the way he received help, mostly from his son Bear, but also his wife Kathy. “It took me a long time to recover, to be able to do that. It meant a lot to me.”

School principal Cathy Crockett-Moore thanked LaFortune for the piece, which she described as incredibly beautiful, and thanked the family for making the carving of the pole an educational experience for the student body, which includes LaFortune’s grandson and two granddaughters.

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Working in the school’s foyer, she added, the carver shared his rich culture with all of the school’s 400 students.

“While that was happening, Kathy had tables of artifacts and tools set up that she shared with our students and taught them more and more about the culture,” Crockett-Moore said. “Forever in time we are thankful for you being part of our school community. It has touched our school, our students, our staff, our families.”

Monday’s unveiling coincided with National Indigenous Peoples Day. Underlying the event was the recent discovery of the remains of 215 children on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. A visible reminder of that came in the fact several participants, including the LaFortunes, wore orange shirts in honour of the victims.

RELATED STORY: VIDEO: First Nations, political leaders mark Indigenous Peoples Day, recognizing dark truths

That discovery has resonated across B.C., Canada and beyond in drawing attention to the residential school system, with which the Canadian federal government sought to assimilate Canada’s Indigenous Peoples into western society by stripping them of their language and culture.

The system operated for more than a century between 1867 and 1996 across Canada. While recent scholarship including research by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has broadened public knowledge of the residential school system, the discovery in Kamloops will likely further intensify public reckonings with this part of Canada’s history.

LaFortune hopes students will take a positive message from the pole.

“There are good things coming,” he said. “There are good things being done still and there is a lot of hope for the future,” he said.

The ceremony featured the drumming of Scott Sam of Tsartlip First Nation. Tsartlip elder May Sam, along with her great-granddaughter Josephine Sam-Jimmy – a Grade 4 student at KELSET – blessed the welcome pole. May Sam also led a final prayer toward the end of the ceremony.

Other speakers included Indigenous support teacher Robin Dupree and school parent advisory council representative Marie Fish.

Al Sam of Tsartlip First Nation led the ceremony.

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Tsartlip Nation elder May Sam, joined her great-granddaughter Josephine Sam-Jimmy, and drummer Scott Sam, performed the final prayer during Monday’s unveiling of the welcome pole now gracing the front entrance of KELSET Elementary School in North Saanich. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)
Elder May Sam, joined by great-granddaughter Josephine Sam-Jimmy, performs a blessing ceremony for the new welcome pole now gracing the front entrance of KELSET Elementary School in North Saanich. Artist Doug LaFortune and his wife Kathy watch in the background. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)