Rescuing the Sunwapta totem
by Lawrence Herzog
Inside Edmonton | Vol. 28 No. 39 | September 30, 2010
Real Estate Weekly
For 35 years, it was an Edmonton landmark. When the 18-foot high Thunderbird totem pole at the front door of CFRN’s Sunwapta Broadcast House at 18520 Stony Plain Road was removed during an extensive reconstruction in 1989, it marked the end of an era.
But not the end of the story.
The totem, which may have been handcarved sometime around 1954 by Chief Mathias Joe Capilano of the Squamish Nation, was thought lost. For many years, nobody seemed to have any idea where it had gone.
Then, in 2004, CTV Edmonton’s sales manager Alan Mabee heard that the totem was in the possession of collector George Suntjens of Sangudo. Once word reached the station that Suntjens had decided to sell it in an antique auction September 11th, a plan was hatched among a small group of employees, past and present, to bid on it. The group also initiated discussions with the Royal Alberta Museum and Athabasca University to see if either institution wanted it.
John Hanson, a CTV news photographer,and Allan Thompson, a retired graphic artist who worked 37 years at the station, headed to the auction, hopeful they would snag it back. They were outbid by Ken Adams, a retired gentleman from the Whitecourt area. Afterwards, Hanson felt he needed to tell Adams about their hopes and plans for the totem.
“I didn’t want it to slip away – again,” he says. “We lost it once, then didn’t get it at the auction. I approached him, hoping he would see our commitment to bring it back to Edmonton and donate it to a suitable institution for historical preservation and public display.”
Discussions continued for several days and Mr. Adams agreed to sell the totem to the group for the exact sum he paid for it – $3,150. “He was swayed by our passion to preserve and display the historic Sunwapta totem pole in a more public way,” Hanson says. “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 well cared for.”
Last week, Hanson and his cousin Joe Rosich, coordinator at Athabasca University’s Heritage Resource Management Program, hauled the totem back on a flatbed trailer. Its homecoming arrival at the former CFRN emptied the building.
“The reaction to this has been utterly remarkable,” Hanson says. “As the word has gotten out, we’ve had interest from all over. My email has been going full time.”
Hanson sent an open letter to past and current employees asking for help to pay for the acquisition, and within two days more than 70 of them had expressed an interest in buying shares in the totem reclamation effort. They include Ashleigh Banfield, Pat Kiernan, Ian Leonard, Bruce Hogle, Robin Cleator and yours truly.
The totem, with its 11-foot wide wingspan, was an iconic part of the cowboy chic facade of Sunwapta Broadcast House. The station swung into the saddle in 1954 when CFRN went on the air as Edmonton’s first television station owned by broadcasting pioneer Dr. G.R.A. (Dick) Rice.
Back then, the building on the original Highway 16 was the only significant structure west of 170th Street. Sunwapta Broadcast House said goodbye to travellers leaving Edmonton and hello to those arriving from points west.
“This totem pole is such an iconic piece of Edmonton history,” says Cathy Roy, curator of Western Canada History at the Royal Alberta Museum. “We always hoped that we would get it, and thanks to the staff association coming together to donate it, we have it.”
She says the museum is excited to have the totem join its cache of CFRN artifacts, including Dr. Rice’s personal collection donated in 1988. “This is a pivotal artifact for the story of media in Alberta.”
The totem has been moved to the Royal Alberta Museum’s conservation centre, and it is now being evaluated. Time and weather have left their traces, yet the marks of the carver’s tools are still clearly visible in the huge cedar log. The faces on the front of the pole remain impressive, as does its wingspan.
If it is confirmed that the totem was the handiwork of Chief Mathias Joe Capilano, it makes it all the more historically significant. He was a famous First Nations carver, who created the Thunderbird House Pole, erected at the crest of Prospect Point in Vancouver’s Stanley Park on August 26, 1936.
The legend of this CFRN totem doesn’t stop there. It turns out this isn’t the only time it’s been rescued from a chipper.
Further detective work by Hanson reveals that only a quirk of fate saved it when it was unceremoniously removed from the building in 1989. Ken Macklin was teaching sculpture at the University of Alberta and heard from one of his students that CFRN was doing renovations, and there was a bunch of scrap metal that he might be able to get for their sculpture needs.
“So I went out there, and asked the fellows, and they said, ‘Sure, help yourself,’” Macklin remembers. “And so I went out back, and right at the bottom of this big dumpster was the totem pole. There was nothing on top of it or anything, so I asked them, ‘Are you throwing this out, and if you are can I have it?’ They said, ‘Take it,’ and so I loaded it up and brought it home.”
He says he just couldn’t bear to see it go to the dump. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but I knew I had to take it.”
Ironically, Ken is the son of Virginia Macklin, host of CFRN-TV’s Morning Magazine show. “I had fond memories of it because of my mom, and she had just passed away. I remember going there as a kid and looking at it and trying to climb it. But it had some rot on the bottom and the top, and I couldn’t afford to have it properly restored. So I stored it next to my shop for a few years, and then sold it in an auction for $450 in 2002.”
That’s when the totem was bought by Suntjens. Once any needed restoration work is completed, the totem will find a new public home, maybe at Athabasca University’s new campus building and then perhaps in a future gallery at the Royal Alberta Museum.
“It’s great to see it come back to the city, and know that it will be restored and be there for people to see and appreciate,” says Macklin, who has purchased a share in his mother’s name. “I’m certainly glad I grabbed it when I did.”
“It’s been more of an adventure than any of us imagined,” Hanson says. “This all started a few weeks ago with just a curiosity in an old totem pole. Shows you just how interesting and rewarding history can be.”
This article originally appeared in Edmonton Real Estate Weekly. Reprinted with permission of the author. © 2010 Lawrence Herzog