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Thinking out loud brings healing


Isadore Charters (left) and Don Klaassen carve the fragrant yellow cedar pole. The emerging figures represent the story of residential schools, cultural conflict, and the healing that comes through Christ.

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July 13, 2012
-Deborah Froese

Winnipeg, MAN. —A mumble can be fateful.

Two years ago, members of Sardis Community Church in Chilliwack B.C. sought ways to build connections with surrounding First Nations communities. At one resulting meeting, Isadore Charters, an indigenous artist and elder from the nearby Cultus Lake area, spoke out. Or, rather, he mumbled.

“I’d like to make a healing pole for the residential schools.”

Don Klaassen, a Church Missions Coach with Outreach Canada, says that Charters may have been thinking out loud, but the idea intrigued him and after some discussion, he offered to take on the logistics of the project.

Charters and Klassen brought the Indian Residential School Healing Pole to Mennonite Church Canada’s Assembly 2012, and the two shared of their experience during the closing worship service on July 15.

Charters says that these intricately carved poles tell stories and each unique character depicted carries significance. For the Indian Residential School Healing Pole, he chisels meaningful images into a 200 year old log of yellow cedar. Comfort figures top the pole—a black bear sent down from heaven to help Charters’ people, a mother figure with a blanket to cover those who died in residential schools and to comfort survivors. A nun who served as a mother figure to him while he was in residential school will be carved into the ear of the bear at the top of the pole. 

There is also a racoon. “He’s a bandit like Zorro,” Charters says. “Zorro was my hero in residential school.” Zorro, with his racoon-like mask, stood up for the rights of the oppressed.

Although Charters admits to being nervous when the project began, the response he received encouraged him. “I realized people want to hear and share more about what we [First Nations people] were like before settlers came.”

At first there was no intention of travelling with the Healing Pole project, but as positive responses grew, Charters and Klaassen recognized its potential to encourage others on the path toward healing. So, with the help of Outreach Canada, they took to the road.

Wherever the pole goes, individuals listen to Charter’s story and share their own as he places his hands over theirs to help them carve.

“Human touch is so important,” Klaassen says. “When a carver puts his hand over your hand and guides the knife, it’s quite emotional for both parties.” He speaks of the range of responses they have witnessed, from silent tears or sobbing, to quiet reverence and earnest questions.

Age is no barrier.  “We’ve had lots of people carve,” Klaassen points out, “from an 86 year-old residential school survivor to a 6 or 7-year-old child.”

When the pole is completed, it will be displayed in a location designated by a residential school.

See complete coverage of Assembly 2012