Totem pole felled to return to ‘God’s good earth’

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Bossey, Switzerland
What was perhaps Canada’s most visible contribution to the worldwide ecumenical movement now lies in its final resting place.

A 15-metre-high totem pole, given to the World Council of Churches (WCC) at its sixth assembly in Vancouver in 1983, was on Nov. 28 lowered from its site on the grounds of the Bossey Ecumenical Institute, near Geneva, where it had towered for more than two decades.

“Time has taken its toll on the totem pole, which is partially rotted and unfortunately now constitutes a danger to those who come to see it and to the passers-by from Bossey going about their ordinary business,” said WCC general secretary Samuel Kobia in a recent e-mail message to council staff.

The totem pole was a gift of the WCC’s Canadian member churches and the country’s First Nations. It was temporarily erected at the site of the assembly in Vancouver, the first in which aboriginal Canadian Christians were participants. At the conclusion of the assembly, the totem pole was lowered and moved by freighter to Europe, then transported to the Ecumenical Institute near Geneva, where it was raised in 1984.

Created out of a single red cedar tree, the pole was interpreted by its carvers as a representation of “humanity’s spiritual search through the ages,” telling the story of the “people who follow the spirit of God.” The carvers themselves – aboriginal inmates of a Vancouver-area penitentiary who did the work as a labour of love – represented society’s marginalized people.

Mr. Kobia said the decision to lower the weathered totem pole was taken “not without a bit of sadness,” but also on the advice of members of west coast First Nations, who assured him that totem poles are “not intended to last forever.”

Mr. Kobia’s e-mail added, “After decades they would fall and be left lying on the ground to return to the good earth of God’s creation. The cycle would be complete. Through all of this process the pole would be treated with respect, with the story of its carving remembered visually and later by oral tradition.”

Despite fears that the pole might break, it came down in one piece and now lies horizontal near where it used to stand. The Swiss contractors hired to bring down the structure said they have been asked to do a lot of different jobs, but this was the first time they had ever been asked to dismantle a totem pole.

The story of the WCC’s Canadian totem pole will be preserved through a display that will be unveiled during a meeting of the council’s central committee in February, and located near where the pole once stood and where its remains now lie being reclaimed by the soil.

Bruce Myers is a priest of the diocese of Quebec currently studying at the Bossey Ecumenical Institute.

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