Artist Tom Lafortune explains to Royal Roads University president Allan Cahoon

Artist Tom Lafortune explains to Royal Roads University president Allan Cahoon

Celebrating another aspect of Royal Roads University’s history

University chancellor commissions Coast Salish totem pole for campus

There’s just something about the property at Royal Roads University.

When you turn off Sooke Road in Colwood onto the well-maintained grounds of the school, you feel as though you’re somewhere special. Somewhere old. Somewhere sacred, maybe.

With the school celebrating its 75th anniversary – 55 years as a military college and the last 20 as a full-fledged public university – chancellor Wayne Strandlund knew he needed to do something to help recognize that atmosphere and add to it.

“I’ve always loved the property, its heritage and its history,” he says. “It’s just a wonderful institution for Victoria. The fact that I’m now the chancellor and the chair of the board of governors is just kind of a culmination of my relationship with it.”

That connection began in 1963 when it was still a military college. It seemed to him that the 75th anniversary was a good time to try and do something special for the property and institution that he’s loved for so long.

“The minute that I turn onto this property, something changes,” Strandlund says solemnly. “I don’t know what it is about the place, but my mindset, my attitude, my health – it all changes. And what’s doing that? It’s the spirit of the property. And what better commemoration of that spirit than a totem pole?

“We’re on heritage land here. It’s heritage land in many ways. Not only are we on the historic land of the Songhees band, the Esquimalt band and the Becher Bay band, but it’s also DND land … it’s also a national historic park. I think it deserves something special to recognize and celebrate all of that.”

So he turned to local Coast Salish carver Tom LaFortune to produce a piece befitting both the land and institution. The artist scoured the property itself for the ideal fallen cedar. It was removed and placed down in the boat shed on the lagoon and LaFortune got to work on his vision.

He designed the pole to represent both the land itself and the nature of the property’s use, he says.

At the bottom of the pole will be a frog, which is traditionally a spirit guide and protector, LaFortune says. Above that will be a welcome figure, hands outstretched welcoming visitors to the land. Then comes a perched owl, representing knowledge and wisdom, like that which is shared and encouraged on the grounds of the school.

Three rings separate the owl and the eagle, which will be perched on top overseeing the land and people. Each ring represents 25 years of the school’s history.

Once the basic form of all the figures are in place, LaFortune says, it will take roughly a month to six weeks to complete the 25-foot carving.

“The wood came from the site, the carving is being done on the site, it will be erected at the top of the hill to welcome people to the site, and it is the first pole to be put up on the site,” says Royal Roads president Allan Cahoon.

“I think finding the cedar here, and carving it here, and being here by the water is significant. It’s a spiritual process, so creating the environment that is appropriate and supportive of that is important to us,” he says, adding he thinks it’s important to the people of the area, as well.

Strandlund hopes this is the first of many totem poles to go up on the property, “but that’s up to the president and the university, and everyone else charged with caring for this place. You can’t just come in and start dropping totem poles all over the place,” he says, laughing, looking over at Cahoon. “I’ll do my best to encourage it, though.”

“But what are we here?” Strandlund asks, rhetorically.

“We’re stewards. And there are many stewards. I’m just one steward. The band’s a steward, the DND is a steward, Colwood is a steward,” he says, noting it’s up to all of them together to take care of the land.

Another reason LaFortune is carving the pole on site is so the public can watch it take shape, he says. He welcomes visitors to swing by the shed anytime to see his work. Just stay on University Drive when you enter the property off Sooke Road and follow it right down to the water.

Watch for an announcement in the next month or so for when the totem pole will be installed at its permanent location on the property and begin officially welcoming visitors to the land.

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