Healing to move on
Native women and youth learn life skills and carving to remember the missing women

Catherine Rolfsen
Vancouver Sun

Thursday, August 09, 2007

DOWNTOWN EASTSIDE - On a sunny summer morning in east Vancouver, a group of first nations women and youth gather eagerly at the entrance to a parking garage.

A lock is turned, a door opened, and they pile into the cool concrete space. Inside are three parked cars, three long cedar logs and piles of wood shavings.

The smell of cedar is thick.

It may not look like much, but the Spirits Rising Memorial Society's "carving shed" at Dundas and Wall streets is the location of great hope and tremendous sadness.

These 12 people are carving a totem pole to commemorate the women who have gone missing or been murdered on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

In the process, organizers believe they're sowing the seeds of a women-led sea change in the drug and abuse-ravaged neighbourhood.

The women who have died or disappeared in Vancouver's poorest neighbourhood have been spotlighted since charges were laid against Robert Pickton for 26 alleged murders.

However, Spirits Rising's coordinator and counsellor Kim Haxton says the tragedy and its legacy are far from over.

"I think we live in a society where we don't really deal with tragedy or grief," she says, "and yet there are all these people with pain."

Haxton says she's had family and friends of the missing women come into her office, sit down on her couch, and weep.

"[They] said, 'Thank you for doing this. I needed something,' " she says.

The stories of the missing women are intrinsically tied up with the plight of urban aboriginals. Of the 65 women on the list of those vanished from Vancouver's streets, 23 are indigenous. The Canadian government has estimated that young aboriginal women are five times more likely than all other young women to die as the result of violence.

Despite -- or perhaps because of -- these links, organizers of Spirits Rising are convinced that healing will come from within first nations culture.

Twelve aboriginal women and youth, most from the Downtown Eastside, have been selected to receive a living allowance and take 16 weeks of full-time life skills and carving courses.

The project will culminate with a potlatch and the raising of the totem pole early this fall in Wendy Poole Park, a tiny green space in the Downtown Eastside named after a pregnant aboriginal mother who was found strangled to death in the neighbourhood in 1989. The man charged with her murder was acquitted and the case remains unsolved.

Haxton plans the group's life skills classes, which range from non-violent conflict resolution to financial literacy and are designed to complement the more physical, public project of healing embodied in the pole.

"This whole project, Spirits Rising, is about healing and addressing the issues," she says. "It's about honouring, having closure so that people can go forward."

To commemorate and to transform is exactly why Georgina James joined the group.

As the slight, sad-eyed 41-year-old whittles a piece of cedar, she raises her voice above an incessant wood sander to explain how she got here.

James was one of many aboriginal children taken into foster care as part of the "'60s scoop." When she was 15, she headed to the streets of Vancouver to look for her mother, a residential school survivor, and the rest of her family.

"I found them in the bar," she says, "and that became my life for a number of years."

It was not until her mother died seven years later of cirrhosis that James started the "never-ending process" of recovery.

Since getting sober, she's worked in outreach programs in Toronto and Vancouver, and joined the first annual Women's Memorial March for the missing and murdered women.

Sixteen years later, she still knows some of the women on that infamous list.

"I think this project is going to bring an awareness back that you can't forget about these women," she says, adding that women are still at risk in the neighbourhood.

Learning to carve is also about continuing her journey of recovery. "Working with this wood is like healing," she explains, "because the cedar is our medicine."

The mother of participant Marlene Thistle's stepson is halfway down the left-hand column of the missing list. Thistle says that family friend Michelle Gurney, last seen in 1998, was mentally disabled and easily persuaded by predators.

Thistle is taking part in the project to remind the public that the women on the poster are "someone's sister, mother, daughter."

Across the parking-garage-cum-carving-shed, master carver Jordan Seward mills about patiently among the students, showing them the finer points of carving.

The soft-spoken 34-year-old member of the Haida and Squamish nations was hired by the society, along with female carver Morgan Green, to bring their pole from idea to reality.

The carving shed is filled with noise and laughter, but it's treated as a sacred place. Anyone under the influence of alcohol or drugs -- or even in a bad mood -- is told to steer clear of the pole. Students are required to be completely clean during the course.

The pole's bark has been stripped and it has been ceremonially cleansed in preparation for carving, explains Seward, a former east Vancouver resident who has since moved to North Vancouver's Capilano reserve.

The Spirits Rising board and Seward have decided to create a traditional Haida memorial pole.

Students have already started carving a mother bear holding two cubs at the base of the nine-metre pole -- to represent love and the pain of loss. Above, the moon will symbolize the grandmothers who watch over us.

The top crest, carved from a chunk of a second log, will be the thunderbird, Seward says, which signifies transformation and strength.

But there are a number of things about the pole that are not so traditional.

Seward plans to incorporate two-dimensional designs in the rings, including Celtic knots to honour the missing women of European origin, a Salish design since the pole will stand on their traditional territory and a Dene rose to honour Wendy Poole, who was from the Dene Nation.

It's also not traditional for women to carve a totem pole, for a pole to commemorate more than one person, or for so many people to be involved in its creation. The group plans to invite families of the missing women to make a cut on the pole.

"It's going to mean a lot more when more hands touch it," Seward says.

Many of those hands are busily working on other projects in the carving shed. Seward has them making bowls, spoons and panels that will be given away as gifts at the potlatch.

Twenty-five-year-old Andrew Dexel is one of the few male students of Spirits Rising. He's tuned into headphones and concentrating deeply on a large panel of a bear, which he's carved in a style he calls "West Coast graffiti mix-up."

Dexel says he's always wanted to learn to carve.

Next to him, 31-year-old Nadine Dorvault says she comes from a family of carvers in the Gitxsan Nation in northeastern B.C.

"Doing this work, doing these sculptures, it seems to be coming to me really quickly," she says.

She's been on her own since she was 13, but as she got older, she became more interested in connecting with her culture. Dorvault hopes after this program she will land an apprenticeship or get into a carving school in Hazelton, where much of her family lives.

Watching the young men and women grow over the weeks since the program began has been rewarding for Michele Morning Star Doherty, president of Spirits Rising.

"It's far more than a pole," she says. "Simultaneously while memorializing the women there's also the aspect of creating options and opportunities through education and self-awareness, so that there is the option that one doesn't have to go down that path."

Brimming with passion and energy, Doherty says the long-term goal of Spirits Rising is to create "social capital" to transform the Downtown Eastside.

Of Cree and Ojibwa ancestry, Doherty recently returned to her birthplace of Vancouver after years of travelling and living in the U.S. and Australia.

"I cannot tell you how totally shocked and upset I was with the Downtown Eastside," Doherty says.

"It's like Harlem 30 years ago. I was in New York the other day, and I thought, 'You know what? You know how Harlem got totally cleaned up to where it is today?'

"It was grassroots, it was through the women, it was about education, and this is where I'm coming from."

Social change in the Downtown Eastside is an ambitious goal for a series of classes, a totem pole and a $500,000 budget. The directors hope to expand the project -- which is funded by Heritage Canada, B.C. Health, the Margaret Mitchell Fund for Women, the B.C. Gaming Commission and other private sponsors -- to two programs of study a year.

Still, it's clear that Spirits Rising has a limited scope. In allowing only clean and sober students, it doesn't directly tackle the scourge of drugs in the neighbourhood. The healing it offers is for those who've already started their journeys.

But in the carving shed, the problems facing Vancouver's urban aboriginals do not seem too large to be tackled one student at a time.

Amber Catzel, a Simon Fraser University student and east-side resident, embodies the hope and pride present especially in younger participants.

She says she loves being part of something so profound and gaining "a better sense of self."

Catzel pauses from the intricate painting she's working on to remark, "I can't believe I'm doing it. It's peaceful, it's spiritual, I feel really good."

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Updated: August 21, 2016