The burning of a totem pole, seemingly in retaliation for the dismantling of a statue of Capt. James Cook on Canada Day in Victoria, has been denounced as an act of racism and an example of settler cruelty by the W̱ SÁNEĆ leadership council.
Chief Don Tom, chief of the Tsartlip First Nation and chair of the council that represents Tsartlip, Tsawout and Tseycum First Nations, said the council does not condone the behaviour of those who vandalised the Cook statue as it can lead to retribution.
“While the removal of the James Cook statue reminds the public of our presence, it is a two-edged political tool,” Tom said in a statement. “On one hand, it pushes the envelope and forces the public to confront the real issues. On the other, it can embolden racists, sway moderates, and put Indigenous people in harm’s way.
“We support calls for the cancellation of Canada Day and we support those who are grieving the loss of our children, but we do not support the destruction of property in their name.”
Hours after Cook’s statue was thrown into Victoria’s Inner Harbour, vandals set fire to the totem pole on the Malahat lookout off the Trans Canada Highway.
The RCMP were contacted just after 4 a.m. Friday by a passing motorist. The Malahat Volunteer Fire Department extinguished the fire.
“The quick thinking of the passing motorist likely saved not only the totem pole, but also a forest fire,” said Shawnigan Lake RCMP commander Tim Desaulniers.
“This was a very dangerous act that could have had far-reaching consequences. We will be working with partners along the Malahat for video and dashcam footage in an effort to identify suspects.”
The scene of the fire had fresh graffiti — “One totem – one statue” — suggesting the fire was set in response to the toppling of the Cook statue.
Desaulniers said the two events appear to be related.
In its release the W̱SÁNEĆ leadership council said it was “extremely disappointed to learn of the acts of racist retribution.”
In his statement, Tom noted Cook’s role as explorer set the stage for the decimation of the First Nations.
“He is a powerful symbol of settlers’ perceived superiority and the erasure of Indigenous people,” Tom said, adding the council has called for the removal of those kinds of symbols to be replaced by First Nation cultural markers.
“W̱SÁNEĆ art in W̱SÁNEĆ territory is one of the many ways to counteract the legacy of James Cook. We belong to this land and want all to know of our continued strength and resilience.”
Tom said the totem pole fire is “reminiscent of the way settlers have worked to steal and destroy our history and culture time and time again.”
The RCMP, churches and other public institutions confiscated and sometimes burned regalia, sending W̱SÁNEĆ spiritual and cultural practices underground, he said.
“Museums, domestically and internationally, removed W̱SÁNEĆ art from W̱SÁNEĆ territory making the land appear bare of our presence. And, settlers, out of misaligned curiosity or for profit, robbed W̱SÁNEĆ ancestors, taking their remains, their personal belongings, and their grave-markers,” he said.
Tom said it’s time society joined forces to hold the Crown and churches accountable.
“We need to move past our impulses, which are justified by hundreds of years of colonial oppression, and have the difficult conversations that will lead to real, true reconciliation,” he said.
Shawnigan Lake RCMP investigators and the Vancouver Island Forensic identification Section have collected evidence at the scene of the fire and hope to identify a suspect. The RCMP ask anyone with information to contact the Shawnigan Lake RCMP at 250-743-5514.