Totem trouble

🕔Sep 27, 2010

In 1907 a line was drawn around the wilderness now known as Jasper National Park and the aboriginal inhabitants—whether they had used the area from time immemorial or traced their ancestry through those who came east during the fur-trading days—were all told to get out.

Then, in 1915, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway purchased a Haida totem pole to greet visitors at its new station in Jasper. The pole, originally carved in the 1870s to honour the Taas Laanas clan of Massett village, displayed crests like Raven, Frog and Bear—figures more connected with coastal households than with the original inhabitants of the Jasper area.

After standing in place for 94 years the much-loved pole was rotting in the wind and weather, and Parks Canada recently commissioned a new Haida pole to replace it— a decision greeted with fanfare by the general public, but among First Nations with historic connections to the park the investment in an icon from so far away caused a stir. Those who once hunted and wintered in the wide Athabasca Valley, or homesteaded and grew fields of barley there, have been locked out of the area since they were evicted almost 100 years ago. To add insult to injury, many feel Parks Canada hasn’t done enough to increase awareness of the area’s actual aboriginal heritage.

Chief Keith Matthew of the Simpcw First Nation, a division of the Secwepemc or Shuswap from BC’s Interior, raised the loudest concerns. Matthew’s ancestors claim territory—from the North Thompson River to the headwaters of the Fraser River, from McBride to Tete Jaune Cache and over to Jasper—but have never signed a treaty with Canada or given up their traditional rights to the area.

Rather than spend half a million dollars on removing the lead paint, transporting the pole back to the islands and carving a new one to replace it, Matthew says an interpretive site featuring a winter pit home, like the ones used by his ancestors, would be a better monument for the area.

“It’s not so much the Haida pole being built,” he said. “We’re concerned the federal government is ignoring our history in the park and is commissioning something from another nation.”

“Bothersome squatters”
The members of another group, known as the Elders Council of the Descendents of Jasper Park
—made up of descendents of the Moberly family, which was evicted from the area in 1910—also want recognition for their unique history. “For us, the pole represents an opportunity to be recognized and make alliances,” says spokesperson Rick Ouellet.

Ouellet’s cousin, Ron Pelletier, has found documents that reveal that brothers Ewan and John Moberly, who had trading posts on opposite sides of the Athabasca River, plus many other long-time and seasonal inhabitants, were considered “bothersome squatters” when the park was proposed.

After the park was legislated, his family members were offered compensation for their “improvements.” Others got nothing. Most headed toward the eastern flanks of the mountains near Grande Cache, Alberta to continue their aboriginal lifestyles, but soon after they moved, the boundaries of a nearby provincial park were moved to encompass the new home they’d chosen, causing further uncertainty.

The former inhabitants may be scattered, but the site where the new pole will be raised is on John Moberly’s trap-line, says Ouellet, his great-grandson.

Jasper National Park spokesperson Thea Mitchell says the park is trying to integrate aboriginal people into its management plans. The idea of recognizing regional aboriginal groups is not a new one, she says, but with so many groups involved, it takes time for things to happen. In 2006, park managers initiated an Aboriginal Forum and invited any aboriginal group with a tie to the park to attend; 14 groups have come forward. They have also been speaking separately with the Elders Council of the Descendents of Jasper Park since 2004.

One success so far, she says, has been the signing of a memorandum of understanding with the Alexis Nakota Sioux First Nation, an Alberta-based group which now has free passes to the park, recognition of its right to collect medicinal plants, and more.

Poles apart
But the BC groups aren’t satisfied with the process, especially since Parks has opened the doors of the forum to all aboriginal groups, when some of the Alberta groups already have long-signed treaties with the federal government that address their land claims.

According to University of Alberta history professor Ian MacLaren, who edited a book called Culturing Wilderness in Jasper National Park, consultation with First Nations and other local residents during the planning stages of new national parks may be “taking place at a glacial speed,” but it is on the increase. He points to New Brunswick’s Kouchibouguac National Park as a turning point. Land was appropriated in 1969 and 1500 Acadians were told to move on, but turmoil kept the park from opening its gates for another 10 years, and the bitterness from former residents continues to this day. With more recent work in the Canadian North, the federal government has moved toward increasing cooperation, he says.

The irony for the aboriginal people who lived in Jasper is that “within a decade of being told to leave, there were cottages and a golf course and the beginnings of a town site,” says MacLaren.

The National Parks Act, written in 1885, forbade permanent habitation in the park and didn’t differentiate between white and native, says MacLaren. But soon exceptions were made, first for a white homesteader, then for the wardens who service the park. Later, tourism developed and the federal government recognized people needed to be provisioned. Now dozens of hotels and businesses operate out of the area and close to 5,000 people live at the townsite.

This is a sore point for the Moberlys’ descendents. Their relatives were guides and outfitters in the area before the park was made, says Ouellet. After they were evicted, white businessmen started packing-and-provisioning businesses, some of which still exist in Jasper to this day.

For Ouellet, the attempts Parks has made to work with his family have been unsatisfactory. Communication has taken place after the fact, he says. Aboriginal groups were told after the announcement was made that the pole would be replaced, rather than being consulted beforehand. Nor was there any initial discussion about proper protocols for raising a pole in such a diversely claimed territory.

Still, he’s moving on. Rather than wait for Parks to facilitate discussions, he’s taken his own initiative to communicate with the Haida and hopes members of his family can visit the islands to see how their heritage site is managed.

Story of two brothers
Meanwhile, two brothers, Gwaai and Jaalen Edenshaw, are carving the 43-foot replacement pole on Haida Gwaii. When completed, the pole will tell the story of two Haida brothers who set out to explore the world. When they reached the Rockies, they travelled three more days beyond. One brother decided he liked the place and stayed, while the second went back home.

Years later, the second brother went inland again to look for his sibling. He retraced their steps and came to a house where he called out in Haida “Na gwa nang is. Is anybody there?” A female voice replied in his language, “Yes, come on in.” Inside, the man found his niece, but his brother had passed on. The brothers and the niece are on the pole, as are figures found in the Jasper region: Grizzly Bear, Dragonfly and Mountain Goat. “The Raven represents the Haida, but also the spirit of curiosity,” said Gwaai.

“At first blush it seems the Haida had no business in Jasper, but it is not impossible to imagine them coming that way,” says MacLaren. Two rail lines, a highway, a pipeline and a computer cable now run through the valley, but ancient trails traversed the low mountain passes long before that. Archaelogical digs have unearthed abalone shells and other coastal trade goods.

And as for the pole itself, MacLaren notes, it’s part of the cultural history of the area. The Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad didn’t just randomly drag one to Jasper, but erected a pole at the rail station in Prince Rupert as well. When it was built, the rail line was in direct competition with the Canadian Northern Railway, whose trains ran through the Athabasca Valley then south to Vancouver. At the time, GTP executive Charles Hays envisioned Prince Rupert would rival the port at Vancouver. The totem poles were part of a scheme to lure people on their beautiful route to the North Coast, says MacLaren.

“We have shared histories,” says Ouellet, who hopes the new pole will become a turning point for relationships between Parks and his family. The bottom line for him is, “we’d like to see our own people working in the park and telling our stories.”