The Scouts Canada Totem Pole

L to R: Scouts Canada HQ, Ottawa, Google Streetview / Andrew King, Ottawa Rewind / "The Tale of the Totem", Scout Leader 38, No. 4 (January 1961)

Friday, June 5, 2020

This article appeared in the May 2020 issue of the Heritage Ottawa Newsletter.


In 1961, the British Columbia Scouts gifted a totem pole to Scouts Canada in Ottawa to celebrate the official opening of Scouts Canada’s national headquarters. The totem pole was designed and created by Kwakiutl Chief and world-renowned northwest coast carver, Mungo Martin, and his grandson, Henry Hunt, in 1960.

Chief Martin, also known as Nakapankam, which means a potlatch chief “ten times over,” was born at Tsaxis (Fort Rupert) on Vancouver Island, around 1881. He died in Victoria on August 16, 1962, only two years after completing this pole. Not only a carver, he was also a recognized painter, singer, songwriter, and teacher. He was the stepson of Charlie James, also a noted Kwakwaka’wakw carver. Chief Martin was a tutor of Henry Hunt, and other preeminent Indigenous artists Tony Hunt and Bill Reid.

When he was only about 20 years old, Martin created his first commissioned totem pole, called Raven of the Sea, erected at Alert Bay, BC. Fifty years later he was asked by the University of British Columbia to take a lead role in their totem pole program, teaching, carving, leading restoration work and eventually making replicas of some of the oldest totem poles.

Chief Martin is also remembered for carving the World’s Tallest Pole (Beacon Hill Park, Victoria), as well as the Centennial Totem Pole (Hadden Park, Vancouver) and its twin in London, England. He was posthumously awarded a Canada Council Medal for his lifetime of work.

The Scouts Canada totem pole comprises six parts which are, from top to bottom, Raven, Man, Grizzly Bear, Cannibal Woman, Killer Whale and Beaver. These six clan crests represent the Kwakiutl and other nearby tribes. Most of the clan crests represent the founders of these clans, indicating their change in form from animal to human.

In 1960, the cost of commissioning the totem pole was $8,000. Funding was provided by the Provincial Museum of British Columbia (now the Royal BC Museum), and other commercial and industrial sources. It was transported to Ottawa on two flatbed rail cars and assembled in front of the Scouts Canada headquarters. Its bright colours and 60-foot vertical rise countered the low-lying, pale-coloured building.

Since 1961, the totem pole has become weathered and worn, and has lost much of its original colour. Some of the features near the top have deteriorated and cracks are evident throughout the pole.

Michael Harrington, of JHG Consulting Network Inc. says that at least two conservation proposals have been submitted to Scouts Canada, at their request. The urgency to conserve this remarkable and historic work is growing as the totem pole further deteriorates. However, he says that since Scouts Canada has “limited financial resources, we were able to enter discussions with the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology, the Canadian Conservation Institute, and the Canadian Museum of History.” These national institutions recognize the significance of this pole and all wish “to assume some role in this project.” He adds that it “is important to them that their staff have first-hand experience in the treatment of these objects, [that there is] collaboration with the indigenous communities that continue to produce this important art form and [that this project raises] the level of awareness of the treasures that are under local stewardship.”

According to Andrew Todd of AT Conservators in BC, the conservation process is “a complex treatment developed on the west coast ...[and] is a traditional conservation method adapted with modern materials and stages of work especially for outdoor works of art in wood.”

For its part, Scouts Canada ran a fundraising campaign a few years ago at the neighbouring federal government offices of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada where AAFC’s Indigenous Network became interested in the conservation project.

The totem pole remains very significant to Scouts Canada. According to Scouts Canada’s donation page, the totem pole acknowledges their “commitment to the stewardship of nature and the conservation of the environment.”

Allison Margot Smith is an historian, historical documentary filmmaker and member of Heritage Ottawa.

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