Bark Lake’s wooden carvings on the chopping block

Wooden carvings on the Bark Lake Leadership and Conference Centre property in Irondale will come down after an onslaught of recent requests from visiting university students who reported them to be offensive.

Staff at Bark Lake took the feedback to sources at Curve Lake First Nation who advised the carvings should be taken down to honour the calls to action provided by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada report in 2015 which according to the TRC aim to “redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation.” A unanimous vote at a Bark Lake head office management meeting based on that guidance and recommendation secured the decision to remove the carvings.

“As a place of education and a venue to a number of events Bark Lake would like to stand with and recognize that many people from many communities walk our grounds and come here to learn and explore” reads an announcement  regarding the carvings in a recent newsletter. “Bark Lake wants to ensure that this place is a safe and accepting centre for all who choose to discover it.”

Maria Paterson director of sales and programs at Bark Lake said little is known about the wooden carvings or imitation totem poles that were likely created in the ‘70s. It wasn’t until recently that staff at the centre had heard negative feedback regarding their existence on the property which has been used as a leadership facility since 1948 and hosts outdoor education and leadership programs year-round.

“As students brought it more and more to our attention and as we began to read the Truth and Reconciliation calls to action then we felt that it was time to bring that down and to make our clients comfortable when they come to Bark Lake” said Paterson. “This is a place of learning and education. So we decided to reach out to Curve Lake First Nation and get some feedback from them. They helped us in deciding the decision to remove the wood carvings from the Bark Lake property.”

“We think a totem pole is just a pole that has carvings on them but actually each section of that totem pole has a big meaning to the First Nations community” said Paterson. “When they carve a totem pole it’s really important they have that connection to each of those sections there’s a big meaning behind them. Where our carvings of course had no meaning to link them back to First Nations. So a number of people who are coming to Bark Lake could have had a misrepresentation of what a totem pole actually was and we wanted to make sure we weren’t doing that. That was a big learning for myself personally that a totem pole is not just a big wood carving it actually has a meaning behind each of the symbols and why they carved them and it links back to different First Nations groups.”

The Curve Lake Cultural Centre receives calls each week for understanding about similar issues and Paterson said staff at Bark Lake has reached out to the First Nation in the past. The Cultural Centre is guided by the community’s chief and her council and also by an elder’s advisory circle.

“It was a really great eyeopener the information we got from them” said Paterson. “They’ve always been very helpful and very open and very honest with us and we’ve really appreciated that.“

Plans for the wooden carvings at Bark Lake after removal are not yet finalized.

“I don’t know the meaning behind them don’t know why [the artist] carved them. Unfortunately that information has been lost” said Paterson. “We’re just going to store them until we come up with a better plan. So the decision could be made that we do destroy them and just burn them and  be done with them but that decision has not been made. The decision has been made to just take them down and store them right now.“

Paterson said the news of the removal of the carvings has not been received with any negative feedback.

“It’s been understandable why we’re taking it back” she said. “There have been some questions but as we learn more and start to educate other people about why we’re doing it they have the understanding of it eventually.“

Students from McMaster and Trent university who had initiated the discussion responded favourably to the news that the carvings would be removed.

“I am extremely happy to hear that Bark Lake has made this decision” responded one student from McMaster. “I wanted to send my thanks as someone who is Kanyenkeha (Mohawk) for this incredible step towards reconciliation.”

To learn more about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission or to read the entire six-volume Final Report released by the TRC in December 2015 or a summary of the report visit www.trc.ca .