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The Centennial Gardens Totem Pole

Background on the Centennial Gardens Totem Pole

The Centennial Gardens TotemCentennial Gardens Totem Pole Pole has been located in Centennial Gardens for 51 years. As with any object fabricated from natural materials, the totem pole has been subject to the effects of the seasons. The wood from which the totem pole is made has begun to deteriorate and the totem pole is reaching the end of its lifespan in its current form and location.

Public Engagement

The City of St. Catharines held three public engagement open houses in June to provide information related to the current condition of the Centennial Gardens Totem Pole and to garner community input related to the future of the totem pole. 

The engagement sessions were led by Bruce Alfred. Bruce is a Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw artist of the ʼNa̱mǥis Nation belonging to the whale and sun crest/clans. He was born in 1950 in Alert Bay, a small island community on the southern coast of B.C. Bruce began his career in a mentorship program offered by renowned artist Doug Cranmer from 1975 to 1978, and it was here that he learned the elements of traditional Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw design, carving, printmaking and the steam bent technique for making boxes.

Having been raised primarily by his grandmother Agnes Alfred, Bruce has spent his life immersed in the cultural practices and potlatching traditions of his village. Bruce stems from a long line of prominent artists, including the Hunt brothers, and throughout his career has worked with and been inspired by such outstanding artists as Beau Dick, Wayne Alfred, Tony Hunt, Richard Hunt and William Wasden. Learn more about Bruce Alfred. 

An online survey was also available until June 30 for residents to provide their opinion on the future of the Centennial Gardens Totem Pole. 

History of the Centennial Gardens Totem Pole

The Centennial Gardens Totem Pole was commissioned in 1966 by the City of St. Catharines for $6,800. The totem pole was shipped to St. Catharines by train and erected by a crane in 1967 for Canada's Centennial. In the early-to mid-1960s the nation was nearing its 100th anniversary of Confederation and communities across the country sought ways to commemorate that historical event. In so, Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw artist, Doug Cranmer of the ʼNa̱mǥis Nation was commissioned to create a totem pole for our Centennial Gardens.


At the top of the totem pole is a thunderbird, representing the omnipotence of the conqueror and ruler of the skies and a helpful spirit. The Thunderbird is credited with creating the storms. It's believed to live high in the mountains and carry lightening bolts under its enourmous wings. When he blinked lightning came out of his eyes, and when he flapped his wings thunder roared.


Bear holding Copper

Next on the totem pole is a bear holding copper symbolizing great power and authority on earth; copper in a ceremonial symbol of wealth and high rank. For the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw, the copper symbolizes wealth. Each copper has its own name, history and value. Sometimes a Chief would break a copper to show that he was so wealthy that he could afford to damage such a valuable object. The value of a copper rises each time the copper changes hands. The purchase of a copper, its sale or destruction, are all events that occur at a potlatch. For more information on Potlach click here.


Cedar Man

Below the bear is a Cedar Man. The Cedar Man was a tree that transformed into a man and became an ancestor to the Kwakwaka'wakw. The cedar tree is called the tree of life and every part is utilized. 



Next, the Sisiyutł is a double-headed serpent and one of the most powerful figures in Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw tradition. The Sisiyutł has a frightening snake-like body with two serpent heads that extend in opposite directions from the human-like face in the centre. Curved horns protrude from each serpent head, and two horns extend from the central human head. Red tongues, often elongated, stick out from each snake-like mouth.

A Sisiyutł has powerful abilities of transformation and can change into a salmon or even a canoe. To touch or see the dangerous Sisiyutł means certain death. However, for some, particularly warriors, Sisiyutł brings supernatural power. A drop of Sisiyutł blood can cause a warrior's skin to turn to armor. The skin of a Sisiyutł is said to make a belt that allows the person wearing it to perform superhuman feats.

The image of Sisiyutł is often displayed as a family crest, and is painted or carved on house fronts and panels, totem poles and ceremonial objects. Sisiyutł can also be a długwe’, which is a treasure or supernatural power.




Lastly, a Raven at the bottom symbolizes a creator. Its acquisition brought wealth, power and wisdom to the family. In the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw culture the Raven is known as the messengaer of the sky and famous for being a somewhat mischievous glutton. He's always out to please himself and to have a good time. He's very adventurous. He is a benevolent figure who helps the people, but at the same time, he is also a trickster character and many Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw stories about the Raven have to do with his frivolous or poorly thought out behaviour getting him into trouble.


Doug Cranmer 

Doug Cranmer a Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw artist was born in Alert Bay on January 18, 1927. Not only was he the hereditary chief of the ʼNa̱mǥis Nation but he was also a carver and artist that played a significant role in the Northwest Coast art movement. The Northwest Coast was part of an exciting, innovative and international art scene that has contributed to the history of Indigenous Art in Canada. 

In the 1950s, Doug recieved his first formal carving instruction. He worked at the Museum of Anthropology, carving five totem poles and supervising the construction of the two Haida houses that are now located on the Museum's grounds. Doug also founded a retail gallery, The Talking Stick. This was one of the few initiatives at the time through which First Nation art was marketed by First Nations people. He also taught carving at 'Ksan, at the Vancouver Centennial Museum and in Alert Bay. His work has been displayed nationally and internationally and is a part of many public and private collections. 

Although an internationally renowened Master Carver, Doug remained a humble man who refferred to himself as a "Doodler" and "Whittler."  His contributions to art history plays a crucial role in training the next genertation of upcoming artists and historians. 

History of Totem Poles 

Totem poles are monuments created by First Nations of the Pacific Northwest to represent and commemorate ancestry, histories, people, or events. Totem poles are typically created out of red cedar, a malleable wood relatively abundant in the Pacific Northwest, and are erected to be visible within a community.

Most totem poles display beings, or crest animals, marking a family’s lineage and validating the powerful rights and privileges that the family holds. Totem poles do not necessarily tell a story so much as serve to document stories and histories familiar to community members or particular family or clan members.

Across the world the totem pole is falsely seen as a symbol of all Indigenous North American peoples. The carving of totem poles is an ancient cultural tradition that originated on the west coast of North America with First Nations such as the Tsimshian, Haida, Tlingit, Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw, Nuxalt and Coast Salish. Each group has their own carving styles and traditions. 

Traditionally, totem poles were raised during the potlatch ceremony but for decades the Potlach Ban was enforced in Canada as part of a wider policy of cultural assimilation (Section 149 of the Indian Act was in effect from 1885-1951). Totem poles were bought and stolen from west coast indigenous communities until the Potlatch Ban was lifted. 

Copyright © 2014 The Corporation of the City of St. Catharines