Malahat Summit totem removed for repairs after being set on fire

The Salish Bear Totem at the Malahat Summit, apparently burned in retaliation for the dismantling of a statue of Capt. James Cook in Victoria, has been removed in order to be refurbished.

After a small, private ceremony at the summit site Saturday morning, the totem was taken down and transported to Duncan, where the extent of the damage will be determined.

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Duncan Mayor Michelle Staples said the ceremony, performed to ensure that cultural protocols were completed prior to the removal of the totem, was beautiful and healing.

“Sometimes, things done in order to tear us apart have the opportunity to bring us closer together,” she said. “We are in a time now when there are more people open to coming closer together rather than being torn further apart and that’s really important for the healing of all of us.”

The totem pole, which had been refurbished in 2015 and re-raised on the Malahat lookout off the Trans-Canada Highway, was set alight early on July 2. That was just hours after Cook’s statue was thrown into Victoria’s Inner Harbour, and a painted message suggested the damage to the totem was ­retaliation for the toppled statue.

Passing motorists tried to put out the fire, which was eventually extinguished by the Malahat Volunteer Fire Department.

The fire was denounced at the time as an act of racism by the W̱ SÁNEĆ leadership council.

Since the fire, people have placed memorial items at the totem. Those items will remain at the site.

The totem was carved by the late Stan Modeste, a former chief of the Cowichan Tribes, as part of the 1966 Route of the Totem Centennial project, co-ordinated by the provincial Transportation Ministry.

The City of Duncan, which has been responsible for the pole’s maintenance, has been working under the guidance of the Modeste family, Cowichan Tribes and Cowichan elders to follow the protocols related to removing the totem and begin refurbishment.

Staples said Saturday’s ceremony is the first part of the process of returning the totem to the site.

She said there will be a process to choose a carver to do the work and then they can determine the extent of the damage and the cost.

The province has already committed funding to the project.

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