Totem pole-naming ceremony honours restorative justice activist


Liz Elliott’s spirit commemorated by the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation   

By Alison Roach

Photos by Marianne Meadahl

Almost exactly a year after she lost her battle with cancer, a traditional naming ceremony for a totem pole honouring Liz Elliot was held at SFU’s Burnaby campus. Elliot worked as a criminology professor at SFU, and she was a founding director of the SFU Centre for Restorative Justice. Elliott worked closely with a group of aboriginal inmates at Ferndale Institution, a minimum security prison just north of Mission. These men had the idea to dedicate a pole to her, and to the spiritual elder at Ferndale, Alex Paul, who selected a cedar that fell during the 2006 Stanley Park storm and was gifted to the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation for Elliott’s pole. Carving began in the spring of 2011.

Before she came to SFU, Elliott was a social worker, and was heavily involved in prison work. She wrote her thesis at SFU, and went on to found the Centre for Restorative Justice along with Robert Gordon. Largely due to Elliott’s work, SFU now has one of the strongest programs in teaching restorative justice at both an undergraduate and graduate level.
Elliott devoted much of her time working in her own community of Mission, working at Ferndale Institution and helping to found the Mission Restorative Justice Program. Said Dr. Brenda Morrison, a co-director of the Centre for Restorative Justice, “Her heart was always in her prison based work. Because she believed that for offenders to right their wrongs, and to reintegrate properly into society they need a community of care, and so she created that community of care at Ferndale.”
The process of having the totem pole carved is long and complex, requiring a number of different rituals, with four ceremonies involved. The first was the awakening of the pole, where the first chip was taken out and songs and rituals are performed to help the carvers do their work well, and to bring Elliot’s spirit and the spirit of the pole together. This ceremony was presided over by Alex Paul and the Tsleil-Waututh Nation and took place on sacred ground at Ferndale. Elliot, who was still alive at the time, was also in attendance. The second ceremony marked the finishing of the pole, and the third its raising, which took place on Dec. 5, 2011. Finally, the fourth ceremony took place this September at SFU Burnaby, the naming of the pole. It was attended by people from the Correctional Service of Canada, Elliott’s community, her family members, and members of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation.
The pole is now erected at the mouth of the criminology department, and depicts three figures: a woman, who represents Elliott herself, an eagle above her, to give strength and wisdom for the journey, and a hummingbird at the top to lead the way. Elliott’s only request for the pole was the hummingbird, an allusion to a favourite parable of hers. In the story, there was a great fire in the forest and all the animals large and small ran from the forest to a place of safety, away from the injustice. And out of all the animals in the forest, the only one that turned around to face the fire, and the injustice was the hummingbird. Morrison explained, “For Liz and many of us, the hummingbird represents courage . . . to turn around and face injustice. And that’s what we try to do here.”
Elliott is also being honoured with the creation of the SFU Hummingbird Awards, which will be presented at the annual Liz Elliot Memorial Lecture during Restorative Justice Week in November. The awards are province-wide, and will be given to students who engage communities, research, and in critical thinking in the area of restorative justice. Morrison said, “Everyone who knew and loved Liz is still involved in this work.”

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