Honouring the Past: Seaspan Collaborates with Squamish Nation Master Carver to Restore Totem Pole

May 15, 2024

If you are a North Vancouver resident or visitor, you might be familiar with the totem pole that long stood by the Seaspan Cates Building near the Lonsdale Quay public market.  

The totem pole was originally carved and painted by Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) Master Carver Tommy Moses, who was renowned as one of the foremost totem-pole carvers on the West Coast. He presented it to Mayor Charles Cates of North Vancouver as a gift in October of 1948, and it stood at the Cates Wharf until 2020 when it was taken down and put into storage after a “closing of the eyes” ceremony.  

A group of seven people stand in front of a colourful totem pole

October 2020: Closing of the Eye ceremony 

Today, Seaspan is proud to be partnering with Darren Yelton, a talented artist from the local Squamish Nation to restore the historic totem pole to its original condition and colours with plans to raise the totem pole at Seaspan’s Pemberton Campus this spring.  

“I’m very honoured to be working on this,” said Darren, who is currently working on sanding and painting the totem pole at his home workshop. “Tommy had a connection with my wife’s family through her grandparents and I feel that sense of connection with him as I work on this.”  

1947 Photo of Tommy Moses carving a small totem pole. Photo credit: MONOVA Archives

1947 Photo of Tommy Moses. MONOVA Archives

“I enjoy what I do,” explained Darren, who recently celebrated his 51st year as an artist. “My father was a totem pole carver and so creating artwork is something that has been in my family for decades.” Since first learning to carve when he was just a child, he has taught many artists in his nation as part of his efforts to keep the skill alive.  When asked about the significance of the animals on the totem pole, Darren shared that each one has a different meaning: 

The figure at the top is a thunderbird, a legendary figure that is said to create lightning in Squamish lore. It is also known for being a spiritual bird that hunts killer whales. Underneath is the raven, known for being a trickster who can transform himself into anything.  

The frog on the totem pole represents good fortune. And finally at the bottom of the pole there is a grizzly bear with a salmon gripped in its mouth, which symbolizes strength and the cycle of life.   

October 1948: Black and white image of a Totem Pole raising ceremony at Cates Wharf in North Vancouver. With Chief Isaac Jacobs, Eileen Joe, Chief August Jack Khatsahlano, Chief Mathias Joe and the carver of the pole, Tommy Moses. Photo credit: MONOVA Archives

October 1948: Totem Pole raising ceremony at Cates Wharf in North Vancouver. MONOVA Archives

The totem pole did not always look like it does in the photo above. It was repainted by an unknown artist, who chose to repaint the thunderbird in a bright blue. And Darren, who was previously asked to touch up the paint about twenty years ago, is happy to be restoring it back to the colours that Tommy Moses chose. “After I’m done with it, it will look just like it did when it first stood up in 1948,” he said.  

Currently the cedar is quite weathered, with a woodpecker hole that Darren will fill in with epoxy resin, and several areas that have rotted with time, like the salmon in the grizzly’s mouth. Over the course of several weeks, Darren will take great care to fill, sand, and re-paint the totem pole. 

Image of a man with short hair standing in front of a horizontal totem pole that he is in the process of restoring.

Darren Yelton in his home workshop in North Vancouver

“We’re reviving something special here. This totem pole is 76 years old; I am glad it has lasted this long. Right now, it’s sleeping, and soon we will wake it back up,” said Darren when asked how he felt about the project. “When we do so, we’ll place a toonie underneath the totem pole. It’s a tradition of our people and will bring good luck to everyone who witnesses the totem pole being raised.”  

Once restored, the totem pole will find its new home at the Vancouver Shipyards Pemberton Campus, where it will stand as a testament to the rich cultural heritage of the Squamish Nation, and Seaspan’s ongoing collaboration with them.  

Seaspan also recently partnered with local Indigenous artists from the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations to create custom artwork for Seaspan’s electric shuttle buses. Through these initiatives, we are reaffirming our commitment to supporting and celebrating local Indigenous artwork and traditions.