'It means a lot to me': First Nations artist calls for return of stolen totem pole hand to MMFA

Charles Joseph, a Kwakiutl artist from Canada's West Coast and a residential school survivor, says the totem pole erected outside the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts tells an important story. 

Charles Joseph says totem pole outside Montreal Museum of Fine Arts tells important story

B.C. Kwakiutl artist Charles Joseph created the Residential School Totem Pole, which has been standing outside the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts since 2017. (Maxime / BRUT)

A Kwakiutl artist is asking the person who made off with a hand from the totem pole he created in remembrance of those who experienced the trauma of residential schools to return it. 

Charles Joseph, an artist on Canada's West Coast and a residential school survivor, says the pole that stands outside the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) tells an important story. 

"The story starts from the bottom of the pole up, up to the top," Joseph said. "It's to reconnect with ... all the other tribes around Canada, just to let them know that they're not the only ones out there who've been hurt by the residential schools." 

At around 3 a.m. on Sept. 20, a person was caught on security cameras swinging from the left hand on the totem pole outside the MMFA on Sherbrooke Street in downtown Montreal.

The hand then came off, and two people were seen fleeing with the hand in their possession, said museum curator Sylvie Lacerte. 

"For the museum and the City of Montreal, this piece is incredibly significant," Lacerte said. 

The totem pole, borrowed from its owner in Toronto, has been in place since May 2017, when it was inaugurated as part of the city's 375th anniversary events, in the presence of Mohawk representatives.

Joseph says he believes whoever took the hand simply got scared and ran away, unaware of the artwork's significance. 

"I would just tell them the story of what it means, and how important it is to the people who know about the history of what I'm talking about," Joseph said.

"It might not mean anything to them, maybe they just liked the way it looked.… But bring it back so we can fix it." 

Someone made off with a hand from this totem pole early in the morning Sept. 20. The artist is hopeful it will be returned. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Joseph and Lacerte say there will be no consequences for the person who took the hand. 

"If they do bring it back, we'll just thank them for bringing it back, and nothing will happen. No vandalism charges," Joseph said. 

If it's not returned, Joseph says he'll make a new hand. But he's hoping he won't have to.

To prevent this type of vandalism from happening in the future, Joseph suggested putting a clear, written explanation of the story next to the totem pole. 

"Maybe there needs to be something big enough for them to read the story and what it means out beside the pole," Joseph said.

"It means a lot to me."

With files from CBC's Simon Nakonechny


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