An Open Letter

This is an open letter to all past and present CTV/CFRN/Sunwapta Broadcasting employees with an offer to participate in a unique offer to help preserve a big part of our broadcast history. There is a  small history lesson and a story that gives some perspective to a plan that may be of interest to anyone with a sense of history and our place in it. Read on and learn how you can be involved.

Some of you reading this who are recent additions to the CTV company likely don’t know what “Sunwapta Broadcasting” means.  Others still working here from the days before we were known only as CTV Edmonton will remember it was the original name of this company, from its earliest beginnings under the ownership of Dr.G.R.A. Rice, through the Electrohome years until their ownership ceased. The name has passed into history, along with the architectural style of the old CFRN building which many would call ’50s cowboy chic when seen in vintage photos.  The iconic symbol of that building and the earliest on-air TV broadcasts was an 18 foot tall totem pole, carved by a West Coast artist named Chief Mathius for Dr. Rice in the early 1950s. It was installed here around 1954.  The totem pole you see in front of the station today, now 20-years-old, is its replacement. It was put up when Electrohome renovated the ’50s out of here in 1989-90. The original was thought lost by many, until earlier this month. And this is where the history lesson ends and the point of this journey begins to take shape.

A few staff, past and present took an interest when it became recently known that the original Sunwapta totem pole was coming up for sale Sept. 11 at an antique auction near Sangudo, Alberta. A plan was hatched among a small group to have myself and Allan Thompson, a retired 37-year veteran graphic artist from CFRN, bid on the nearly 60-year-old pole in an effort to purchase it on behalf of an as yet undefined larger employee group and donate it to a suitable institution for historical preservation. There was a lot more drama to the story, but suffice to say, we narrowly lost the bid. The tale got a bit more complicated when I took it upon myself to not let the new owner walk away without at least telling him of our plans. Names and phone numbers were exchanged. The fellow in question is named Ken Adams, a retired gent from the Whitecourt area. There was enough conversation and a flurry of emails to him over the early part of the following week to convince Mr.Adams to part with it for the exact sum he had paid just a few days before. Although he was aware of its place in history, he was in fact, swayed by our passion to preserve and display the historic Sunwapta totem pole in a more public way. At the auction he had no idea there was a group effort from Sunwapta bidding against him. He had an interest in preserving it as well and wanted to make sure it would be cared for. Had we not been successful in these efforts, it would live out the next many years out of public sight in a private building, part of his antique collection.

We have letters on file from both Athabasca University and The Royal Alberta Museum indicating enthusiastic interest in providing archival restoration, a permanent home and equally important, telling the story of the artist who carved the pole and the people who worked for the pioneering company known as Sunwapta Broadcasting. To fully appreciate the significance of this original totem pole you have to look back at some archival material to see that it was visible everywhere: station IDs, letterhead, promotional material and to the greater population, it was a beacon on the western-most edge of the city. Facing Stony Plain Road, near where the current main door is, the totem was a landmark for decades. People approaching Edmonton from the west knew they were getting close to the city when they saw the totem pole. Anyone who lived in Central and Northern Alberta or worked at Sunwapta between 1954 and 1990 recognize this totem pole as a landmark.  For the sake of those that want an idea of what it looks like, there is a black and white photo of the pole in a frame across from the CTV news assignment desk. Another is in the studio ready room and images of it in various forms are on the 50th Anniversary posters around the station.

The object of all of this is to give some perspective to anyone who wishes to take part in preserving history. The plan is to take a headcount of anyone interested in buying a share in the totem pole, divide that by the total amount it costs to get it to the city, and come up with an equal share value. The value of the share should be in the range of $75 to $100.  The purchase price of the totem is $3150.00 with some transportation costs from the Whitecourt area to be determined this week. CTV General Sales Manager Alan Mabee has very generously offered to front the money to pay the current owner and get it to the city. He will be reimbursed, except for his equal share, by the group owner’s contributions. The total should be well under $4000. For example, if the total price ends up at $3500 and we have 50 owners, the share price is $76. Anyone with a Sunwapta, CFRN TV/radio or CTV connection, retired or current is welcome to participate.  The more participants, the smaller the share cost. As well, any family or friend of a deceased employee could buy an “in memory of” share for that person. There will be appropriate recognition on future signage with the names of all the “owners” displayed along with whatever museum quality interpretation is presented by the institution in the display. Please understand this is an employee driven plan with no corporate financial support from CTV or any other organization.  Due to overhead costs, there is no framework for a charitable foundation and no tax receipts will be issued. This project is motivated by a love of history and Sunwapta employee’s place in it.

The totem pole will then be gifted to The Royal Alberta Museum  or Athabasca University for professional attention as their experts see fit. It is hoped that it will be displayed for all to see in the near future, potentially at Athabasca Universities’ new campus building and later The Royal Alberta Museum in a dedicated future Alberta gallery with a media component.

This preservation and public showing of this totem pole is important for many reasons. It is a recognized piece of aboriginal art. It was the defining image of a pioneering broadcast company both on the air and in the community. It was a landmark for decades in the City of Edmonton. It has resided in private hands for 20 years, with three different owners, largely out of public view. The totem has lived outdoors for approximately 60 years. It is weathered and decaying but it remains an amazing piece of art. The marks of Chief Mathius’ carving tools in the huge cedar log are still clearly visible. The faces on the front of the pole are impressive as is its 11 foot wingspan. The time has come for it to come indoors, be restored, conserved and recognized by the public as the icon of Western Canadian culture that it is.

If you are interested in being a part of this effort and having your or another employee’s name added to the history of this totem in perpetuity, or if we can answer any questions, please contact me: John Hanson @ 780-818-0903 ( or  e-mail Alan Mabee ( .

Your declared interest needs to only be a “YES” at this point. The final share price will be determined with the completed number of participants and the total dollar amount after we get the totem pole to the city by Tuesday, Sept. 21. We will cut off the total number of participants in a couple of weeks to keep the time frame reasonable and to process the share payments in a timely way. You will be contacted soon to make the share value known. As well, the names and number of share holders will be made known to all participants as soon as possible. Any declared totem pole owners not on the CTV Edmonton email list must provide a phone number or email to co-ordinate share payment and other communications as this progresses. Please consider your participation carefully as the total number of shareholders affects the share price for everyone. At the close of this we want the donors to be committed to follow through so the equation remains the same.

Thanks for listening to the story of what has become more of an adventure than any of us, who a few weeks ago expressed a curiosity in an old totem pole, had ever imagined.

John Hanson
CTV/CFRN/Sunwapta News Photographer