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Men in custody find healing and life skills while carving totem pole

Healing, life skills learned

Roger Der is an almost-daily figure at a totem-pole carving project at the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre, which aims to help men in custody deal with problems in their lives.

The 42-year-old Métis man from Saskatchewan, one of a trio of people in custody from Nanaimo taking part, said he loves the fact the corrections system is allowing the project to take place in a field behind VIRCC that had been vacant for 20 years.

Carver Tom LaFortune, who is leading the project, said the significance of the pole is “our own First Nations teachings.”

“The stuff we share here is not our own words, they’re words that have been shared with us.”

He said working with the participants over the past number of months has been “really amazing.”

Prior to getting involved, Der said the only real carving he had done was “whittling a stick while I was camping.”

Even though the 41-foot, 340-year-old, red-cedar pole is a Coast Salish piece, from another culture, he said he is attracted to its meaning and enjoys working with all of the men involved.

“It’s a good bonding experience for getting to know different inmates, getting to know corrections officers.”

He said he is looking forward to the pole being erected in front of VIRCC this fall.

The men listen and pick up on things, LaFortune said. “Of course, they enjoy being out here. Everybody’s on a first-name basis, everybody’s on the same level.

“Their focus is on the pole and they chat with each other and they share with each other.”

LaFortune said he enjoys watching them develop their carving skills. They push themselves “and then they kind of guide each other.”

He said there is definitely healing going on among the men, with the numbers ranging from two or three in a day to a dozen. Up to 80 have taken part so far.

“We have a sharing circle in the morning and then in the afternoon when we’re done,” he said. “I am taken aback ­sometimes by the comments these guys have for each other and for the teachers and for the staff.”

Organizing for the project began just over a year ago and work on the pole has been going on for about four months after a COVID-related delay.

“What I really hope to see is the guys to learn from what this represents,” LaFortune said. “The oldtimers always say you can’t build anything without a good foundation, and your foundation in life is your conscience.”

Having a good conscience leads to having a good life, he said.

Images on the pole have important meanings, LaFortune said, like the wolf being linked to family and leadership.

The pole is all about people being human, he said.

“Some of us have made mistakes,” LaFortune said. “If we get through to one person this program is a total success.”

A number of men have gone on out into the community and continue carving after working on the project, he said.

LaFortune said he would like to see similar projects at other sites.

VIRCC warden Richard Singleton said the participants have “a level of respect and camaraderie.” VIRCC Indigenous cultural liaison Max Henry helps choose who gets to be involved, but being Indigenous is not a requirement.

Singleton said the project “is unlike anything we’ve ever had before here” and gives the men a chance to spend time outside on the grass rather than inside VIRCC walls.

The budget was not available.

Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth, who did some carving during a Wednesday visit with assistance from LaFortune, said LaFortune told him the pole is “something far more” than an art project. A lot of thought goes into choosing what pole to carve and what images to include, Farnworth said.

“And I think that’s what makes this project so incredibly special,” he said. “What’s happening here is amazing and it’s something that everyone involved should be proud of.”

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