Artist Latash Nahanee, left, at the unveiling of a new welcome pole at St. Thomas Aquinas Regional Secondary School. Right, students brush the welcome pole with cedar boughs during the unveiling ceremony. As the school is rebuilt, the community is installing First Nations art as a symbol of reconciliation and a reminder of the past.

VANCOUVER — Sr. Denece Billesberger admits she knew little about the history of the land on which St. Thomas Aquinas Regional High School stood when she began teaching there in 1969.

She had graduated from the North Vancouver school eight years prior. Having returned as a Sister of the Child Jesus and a teacher, she met many young men from the Squamish Nation who dropped in on Friday “sports night” and insisted that the school stood on their territory.

“They were telling me: ‘this is our land. This is our land.’ In my ignorance, I said: ‘No, the sisters bought it,’ ” Billesberger told 600 students, staff and community members at a recent school ceremony.

“While that’s true,” she continued, “the government took the land away. There were no treaties signed. The Squamish Nation land was taken from them, and then it was sold off.” 

Many North Shore properties were purchased from the government, but “there was an injustice done before that.”

These days, the Sisters of the Child Jesus are throwing whole-hearted support behind initiatives at the Catholic high school where they once taught to remind the community of the land’s complex past.

On Nov. 14, the school unveiled a new welcoming pole commissioned by the sisters and carved by Squamish artist Latash Nahanee. It features a tall Indigenous figure holding an oar in one hand and giving a sign of welcome with the other. “It’s a promise we will be good hosts to all of you,” explained Nahanee. “This is a safe place of learning.”

The artist said the paddle, shaped like one used for steering a canoe, is a symbol for the students of taking control of their life and becoming like leaders: strong, confident and influential.

Chief Ian Campbell of the Squamish Nation is grateful for the welcome pole, now located at the front entrance of the Catholic school, which serves as a sign of ongoing reconciliation.

“As someone who grew up right here in our village, you are family,” he told the assembly. “We’re not drawing lines here where the reserve is there and North Van is here. We’re all part of a community and we’re all part of a history that spans thousands of years.”

The 60-year-old St. Thomas Aquinas High School is in the midst of a major upgrade, with new buildings going up and old ones being torn down as part of a phased construction project to bring the school up to today’s seismic safety standards.

Twelve days after the unveiling of the welcome pole, Archbishop J. Michael Miller blessed a new school building.

“Providing a Catholic education is among the greatest gifts that a community can give,” he said before sprinkling the classrooms with holy water.

“Ultimately, we’re not just built of stones or cement, and there is plenty of it here, but we are a community of living stones. We are the body of Christ. As wonderful as a building is, and it is wonderful, it’s the people who will make this into a really great place.”

While the school community makes the awkward transition from old to new, from construction fences and temporary parking to shiny new classrooms and furnishings, it’s making sure to maintain the strong connection with the history of the land on which it is established.

The welcome pole is just the latest piece of First Nations art at the school. In 2013 artist Wes Nahanee completed an eight-foot-tall Coast Salish spindle whorl, a tool for spinning wool, as a symbol of friendship for the school, and an alumni lounge in the new school is decorated with a prominent wooden eagle suspended from the ceiling.

“We can never forget our history,” said principal John Campbell. “We need to learn from our mistakes so we can make our city, our school and our world a better place.”

Billesberger, whose congregation commissioned the welcome pole and gifted it to the school, said it’s only one step, but an important one, in recognizing a piece of local history.

“I want us all to know the Squamish Nation never signed a treaty and that they were mistreated and that we are on their traditional territory, unceded,” she said.

“I hope for each of us, as we go forward, we learn to treat one another with love and with respect, no matter what nationality, no matter where we come from. We are all brothers and sisters.”

(The B.C. Catholic)