A source of civic pride and “a beautiful reflection of Snuneymuxw history and culture.”
That’s how Nanaimo Fire Chief Tim Doyle describes the welcome pole being carved for the city’s new fire station by Noel Brown of the Snuneymuxw First Nation.
And while the exact composition of the pole won’t be known until its unveiling this fall when the city’s main fire station — Fire Station #1 on Fitzwilliam Street — is complete, Doyle acknowledges that the design is in expert hands.
“Noel is an experienced and well-regarded carver, and we look forward to following along as the pole is carved and finding opportunities to learn from Noel and his family along the way.”
Noel’s work can be seen at several locations around town, most notably Nanaimo’s waterfront where his 50-foot welcome pole was erected this past Sept. 30 on the first annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
The pole he is carving for Fire Station #1 is 40 feet high. And while Noel himself is keeping mum on the design, he acknowledges that it will feature an array of figures known to the Snuneymuxw as protectors. “Because that’s what firemen do — they protect us, keep us safe.”
Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services Chief Karen Fry is particularly delighted at the upcoming addition to Nanaimo’s cityscape: she was Nanaimo’s fire chief from 2017 through January 2021 and as such was instrumental in discussions around not only the design of the new fire hall but its public art component as well.
She explains how Noel’s work came to be chosen for that honour.
“Personally, we (as a fire service) were just beginning to understand the injustices our friends have suffered through colonialism and I wanted to find a way to acknowledge our respect for them.
“Chief Michael Wyse and I knew each other through school and we began building trust between the Nanaimo Fire Department and his Nation. Through many activities to promote fire safety, I had the privilege to discuss a welcome pole and the next thing I knew, I was introduced to Noel.”
Fry acknowledges that while she and Noel had many different discussions about the pole, “the final design decision will be coming from the Elders.” She adds that “when we did the official groundbreaking we had the Elders as our guests and included a blessing as well.”
‘True reconciliation involves moving beyond art’
The welcome pole marks an ongoing effort by the city to forward reconciliation.
“The pole is intended to be representative of our community and pay tribute to Nanaimo’s rich Indigenous history and culture,” Chief Doyle wrote in an email. “It is intended to honour and acknowledge that the fire station is located on the Traditional Territory of the Snuneymuxw First Nation.
“We are aware that supporting a work of symbolic art is only one way to recognize First Nations land, and that true reconciliation involves moving beyond art to meaningful actions to address the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission]’s Calls to Action.”
In 2019, the City of Nanaimo and Snuneymuxw First Nation signed a renewed protocol agreement, which sets out the terms for collaborative decision-making based on a government-to-government relationship.
The city has also committed to implement TRC Call to Action #57, which calls on governments to educate employees on the legacy of residential “schools,” Indigenous treaty rights and other aspects of Indigenous law, like the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
Chief Doyle acknowledges that, as part of the City of Nanaimo’s commitment to the TRC Calls to Action, city staff have received internal training opportunities to learn directly from members of Snuneymuxw and Snaw-Naw-As First Nations during the past three years about such things as the impacts of residential schools and traditional teachings that relate to land acknowledgement and respect.
“We are continuing to build on these internal efforts with more outward-facing community learning and awareness opportunities, as was demonstrated by the first commemoration of National Day for Truth and Reconciliation,” he says, which was held in partnership with Snuneymuxw First Nation and Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools.
The fire department — as part of the city as a whole — continues to strive to be a diverse and inclusive employer, Chief Doyle adds. The department has been in discussion with Snuneymuxw First Nation to support and encourage their youth to become firefighters, and they continue to look at ways to support increased opportunities.
The City of Nanaimo provides fire service to Snuneymuxw First Nation, this includes responding to fire calls, fire awareness, smoke alarm education and installation and other preventative education programs.
Snuneymuxw Chief Mike Wyse has this to say about Noel’s work and the developing relationship it is representative of:
“Snuneymuxw First Nation is proud of Noel Brown and his representation of our Nation through his Snuneymuxw art masterpieces. Acknowledging the people whose territory the Nanaimo Fire Department utilizes advances the roots of the City of Nanaimo and the true history that it holds.”
Chief Wyse added that he appreciates the way the fire department is working toward a “respectful and cooperative” relationship with the nation and looks forward to working together in future.
Black, red and gold
The welcome pole, like the new station, will feature black, red and gold, which were the colours of Nanaimo Fire Rescue when it was formed in 1893 as the Black Diamond Engine Company to protect the town and its bustling coal mines — and explosives.
The existing Fire Station #1 is more than 50 years old and no longer meets the needs of the department, says Chief Doyle.
The unveiling of the welcome pole at the new station on Fitzwilliam Street is months away: Noel however expects it will take that long to finish the piece.
The huge red cedar he is transforming into the welcome pole — purchased from Timberwest and approximately 800 years old — is currently residing on his front lawn: it is covered with a large tarpaulin which keeps out the worst of the weather, but not the cold.
He laughs as he says “help from family and friends with the carving, chiseling and painting is a lot harder to come by at this time of year. People like to hang out in the summer, not so much in the winter!”
As far as the artistry of the piece itself goes, Noel acknowledges that each pole “reveals itself as you go. There are knots to work around. The basic design of the pole remains the same, but it may change a little. The wood tells you where you need to go.”
The people of Nanaimo will know where to go this fall to see the latest inspiring installation from this talented carver in our midst. [end]