After a year’s worth of delays due to COVID, the welcome figure outside Hope Secondary School has been installed in its home.
Jessica Poirier, a First Nations support worker at Hope Secondary, said this project has been in the works since October 2019.
“It’s not just Hope Secondary; Coquihalla Elementary just got a new (welcome figure),” Poirier told The Standard. “Any school in the district that didn’t already have an Indigenous piece was given money to get one.”
George Price, originally from Seabird Island but now living in Ontario, is the carver behind the welcome figure, a cedar figure in the shape of a man.
“My vision of the piece was to do something as traditional as possible to the area,” Poirier said; she is Spuzzum First Nation and has shared relations in the Sto:lo and Nlaka’pamux territories. “I wanted to be as respectful as we could to the territory.”
She said she and her coworkers, Aboriginal mentor Kristie Peters and fellow First Nations support worker Caitlin Demmitt, worked hard to contact those with knowledge of the culture and protocols to put this project together.
“It took us quite a long time to compile a list of things that needed to be done when putting this piece in place,” Poirier said.
And then COVID hit.
“Originally, it was supposed to be for the last day before spring break last year,” Poirier said. “That was the day they put restrictions in for gathering.”
Prior to restrictions coming down, Poirier estimated there would have been 500 people at the ceremony, including the students, representatives of nearby First Nations communities, school trustees and District of Hope dignitaries.
“The original plan was to have the kids experience the traditional dancers and witness the protocols firsthand,” she added.
Instead, everything had to be conducted via Zoom and on video.
Shane John was the master of ceremonies for the installment celebration on Feb. 23.
“There’s so many different medicines and teachings that come forward when we look at the sacred cedar,” he said during the ceremony. “It just took that time when it was just a very small, little seed that grew into a really big tree.”
John said in addition to providing warmth, coverings and carvings, cedar trees continue to provide medicine to First Nations communities.
“What you see…unveiled today is a transformation from that sacred cedar tree” John said. “That medicine that comes from this is always going to be there for myself and for everyone that’s going to be able to see it.”
Poirier also spoke at the ceremony, which she recalled as a nerve-racking experience when John asked her to speak in her traditional language; Poirier is still learning Halqeméylem. Ultimately, though, everything turned out great.
“To be able to show that connection between (Sto:lo and Nlaka’pamux) territories and show the shared relations is a huge deal,” she said. “Often, Indigenous communities get separated, even though we’re so close together, and people forget that a lot of us are related even though we’re from different territories. It’s really good to show that shared connection.”
At times during the instalment ceremony, Fraser-Cascade superintendent Balan Moorthy found himself turning to the mountains to reflect.
“I can’t help but think about the history of Hope, British Columbia, and the role that the Indigenous people played here,” he said at the ceremony. “As we think about this amazing day and celebrate this new welcoming post, I want you to think about all the ancestors that came before us. Take a moment to celebrate the history of this town and the beauty that surrounds this town.”
Poirier indicated there would be a female counterpart to the welcome figure in the future. In her mind, the biggest takeaway from the welcome figure’s presence is more Indigenous presence in local schools.
“For a long time, we didn’t have anything like that,” she added. “After the ceremony, a lot of the kids were going outside to touch the figure and see it in person. And you could see on their faces how excited they were to have a presence in the school. They actually have something to hold on to every day. When they walk in the school and see this figure, they see this figure and know that they are welcome in this school.”