Indigenizing Our Places & Spaces
Gordon Neighbourhood House (GNH) is tucked away in the community now known as the West End of Vancouver, up from the shores of Yulkshun (Squamish place name for English Bay) and walking distance from X̱wáy̓x̱way (Squamish Village in Stanley Park). Surrounded by a dense and vibrant intergenerational community, the Neighbourhood House is a gathering place for families, youth and seniors.
When visiting GNH you know it is a special place, beloved by those who work there who participate in events and programs, and volunteer their time - the air is buzzing with community and connection. This energy was amplified once GNH made connections with John Patrick Spence. John was born in North Vancouver, and is a member of the Squamish Nation. He is from the Killer Whale clan, and is a grandson of the late Chief Simon Baker (Khot-la-cha - man with a kind heart), and is a talented wood carver and painter.
John visited GNH in 2021 for a meeting with his colleagues from Watari Counselling & Support Services Society and the GNH team - talking about supports and mental health services for neighbours in the West End - when the conversation between John and GNH’s Executive Director, Siobhan Powlowski, moved on to other topics.
“When looking around Gordon Neighbourhood House, I said to Siobhan, ‘You need to Indigenize this place!’” shared John. “And so we began painting a mural” responded Siobhan with a smile. And with John’s direction, the community began the mural project in summer 2021!
The mural brought together seniors and youth from the Neighbourhood House, as well as a group of Indigenous youth from Watari’s Youth Outreach Program, who all contributed to the painting. At first, the youth were withdrawn, shy and quiet. The project took a few weeks, and after a while, the group was very connected with each other - laughing, joking and loving the art. The neighbouring buildings that circle GNH helped by running extension cords for the project, and neighbours brought lemonade and blueberries to nourish the painters. Now, a thunderbird, beaver and salmon welcome guests into the Neighbourhood House - important Squamish cultural and spiritual symbols.
The work of indigenizing and adopting Indigenous worldviews are imperative components of the Decolorizing journey ANHBC and Gordon Neighbourhood House are on. With colonization came a culture ban across Canada, written within the Indian Act, banning expressions of culture, art and spirituality.
“Our people were hidden, our reserves were hidden, the residential schools were hidden,” explained John. “The culture ban was across the land, which led to imprisonment or murder - and ultimately mass genocide. The government went to reserves and cut down totem poles, many of which had boxes of the Chiefs’ remains in them. They shipped them to museums. Their intention was to wipe us out entirely. But culture is now healing, through projects like these.”
One year later, spring 2022, John and the community of GNH got started on another big project - a totem pole. When the cedar log arrived from sacred Squamish territory Elaho, there was a ceremony to welcome the log and invite the community into the carving. John carved throughout the summer, two-three times a week, and the day would start with a smudge and songs before his carving began. Quickly, the neighbourhood surrounded John and his work - elementary school children, neighbourhood seniors, everyone wanted to watch John and learn about his work!
“Everytime John would pick up his chisel to begin carving, someone would join him to ask questions, and he’d put the chisel down,” laughed Siobhan. “The energy was incredible!” shared John “[The inquisitive kids, the music playing seniors and the generous food-sharing neighbours] - they all brought me such great energy.”
While the totem pole was carved and will stand in front of Gordon Neighbourhood House, John led the direction of the design, and his family will ultimately guide the destiny of the pole. Through building relationships with each other, it was important for both John and GNH that everyone involved in the project know it is John’s inherent right to practice his culture on Squamish Territory, the land where Gordon Neighbourhood House now sits.
“Being able to do what I want, in my traditional territory, being able to stand [the totem] up here, is so important and meaningful,” explained John.
While the project wasn’t without its challenges, the project and process has been astounding for all those involved. Through the relationship with Gordon Neighbourhood House, the mural project and the carving of the totem pole, John has not only made new friendships, but has also connected with community members with links to his grandfathers on both the Squamish and Haida sides of his family.
“[As a carver] I’m inspired by the animals. My grandparents. My ancestors. When I see an eagle I feel a spiritual connection to them. The connection to that eagle leads me back to my grandfather Chief Simon Baker,” shared John. “He taught me the connection to the spirit world and our ancestors. Sometimes when I struggle, when I feel confused, angry or lost, I’ll see an eagle. It’s a sign that I'm where I’m supposed to be. I feel an immense connection when I carve - I feel it radiating out.”
John Spence’s work can be seen at Gordon Neighbourhood House (1019 Broughton St, Vancouver). The totem pole is planned to be raised this summer, and the community and wider Neighbourhood House Family will be invited to celebrate together. John is carving another totem pole starting June 30, alongside the GNH community, and they have great plans to carve a kuhu7lth (ocean-bound canoe) in the near future - which will live on the shores of Yulkshun (English Bay).
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