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Art by Xwalacktun adorns West Van’s new firetruck

April 11, 2022
By Charlie Carey, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

April 11, Vancouver – In a first of more tangible reconciliation actions to come, a new firetruck soon to be serving West Vancouver communities has been adorned with art from Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) artist Xwalacktun (Rick Harry).

The West Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services new $1.77 million firefighting tower truck features Xwalacktun’s artwork on its rear roll-up door and side body sign boards.

About a year and a half ago, assistant chief of fire protection Jeremy Calder said, the fire chief and team were thinking of ways the department could promote equity, diversity, and inclusion, and start to represent First Nations, too.

“And we were trying to think of ways to do those things, and perhaps inspire the youth of our community, and especially our First Nations youth, to maybe one day see themselves as first responders,” Calder said, adding that after taking inspiration from local police’s Integrated First Nations Unit, Calder made contact with Xwalacktun.

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“And then we started talking about the words that we wanted the images to represent. Things like family, protection, collaboration, strength, and resilience,” Calder said.

Previously doing the IFNU artwork, Xwalacktun said doing the art for the firetruck wasn’t technically challenging, even though the artwork on the back roller door had to be flexible to fit.

“I just listened, and I’ve been doing artwork all my life, so things just come easy for me because I’ll just let it happen,” he said.

On the back door, a Thunderbird rises in the smoke from a longhouse, while on the side of the truck, a canoe with Coast Salish paddles are raised up in the air, holding up the Lions Gate Bridge.

“We always need to have a safe home. … The fire trucks, the fire community, we always have to look after that so that we are always safe at home in our homes,” Xwalacktun explained, adding that the Thunderbird, similar to the Squamish Nation emblem, was changed slightly to make it more Coast Salish in design.

“With the Salish design, you see the eyes are protruding out with those crescents. Those represent that it’s seeing beyond normal vision, moving towards the Creator into the spiritual world,” he said. “And fire is very sacred to us.

“And our houses, we’re always open to community, right? Whenever we have big gatherings, people come to our big houses. … It’s very important to have a longhouse shape. It’s not a traditional Salish house, but it represents a longhouse. It’s pretty diverse around here, anyways,” Xwalacktun noted.

Xwalacktun said the artwork on the side of the tower with the canoe represents people coming together as one.

“We’ve got the bridge, [representing] working together, coming together as one, thinking about balance in our community. And pulling together, showing respect for one another. [And] when the paddles are up, it represents ‘We come in peace and we show respect,’” he said.

Fire Chief Dave Clark said he was recently telling someone the story of the artwork, and they got shivers thinking about what it means.

“It’s been very powerful for a lot of people,” he said.

Xwalacktun said there’s always talk of truth and reconciliation, but action needs to be taken. “This is an action, in our eyes and in our community. And to see something happening that’s very, very visible, because we always used to say that we are invisible in our own land. I used to hear that from our Chiefs and our Elders.”

Calder said with truth and reconciliation, the department has been trying to find ways to reach out to the local First Nations community, as its not well represented in the fire community.

In a closed-to-the-public blessing ceremony slated for later this month, Squamish Nation’s Xwemelch’stn Etsímxwawtxw Capilano Little Ones School has been invited to attend and take park, in a move which Calder said is trying to show them that they’re welcome at the fire department and to inspire them to one day see themselves in those roles.

The ceremony will include a traditional Squamish blessing, combined with a hauling ceremony usually done by the fire department.

Water from the old firetruck will be transferred to the new one, while leaving some water aside to do a brushing ceremony, Xwalacktun said.

“We’ll do the brushing ceremony, which is cleansing it of any negative energy. The water symbolizes a new birth. Water is life, right? When we’re born, we come from water, so there’s a whole significance behind the water,” he said. “And the cedar represents truth and showing respect and also brushing anything that’s negative off of it.”

Explaining that women usually do the brushing as they’re the ones who have the strength and power to give life, Xwalacktun and Calder said the brushing ceremony will include people of all genders, with firefighters, municipal staff and Indigenous and non-Indigenous folks taking part and witnessing the event.

Calder said the collaboration with Xwalacktun has opened new conversations at the fire department.

“We talk about our uniforms, and whether they can be triggering going on to First Nations wearing them,” he said. “We’ll have post fire homes that we need to secure, and say, put an order from the fire department that says, ‘Do not enter,’ we can have conversations ahead of time to say, ‘Here’s the things that we require, but we’d like to give that to you to post on your own letterhead,’ so that it’s not as in your face and triggering, but we’re still keeping the community safe.”

Assistant chief of operations Eric Blank said that there’s a lot of training to be done by the firefighters before the truck goes into service towards the end of the month.

“[It’s a] whole new truck compared to that one from 20 years ago, so there’s a lot of training involved. It’s not as quite as simple as an engine … this is like a whole different animal,” he said, noting that a team from Pierce Manufacturing is flying in from Wisconsin to go through the training.

Black said when comparing to the old truck, the new one is about seven feet shorter than the one currently in service, which will help significantly with maneuverability around West Vancouver streets.

“It’s more accessible; to go different places, tighter streets, roundabouts, traffic calming, and for the guys to feel comfortable and confident when they’re driving it,” he said.

Calder said that while this project might be just one step to redress the last 150 years of colonization, it’s going to take “150 [more] to find our way of healing.”

“The patience of First Nations is unbelievable. To set aside anger and just want to heal, and work to educate us on how we’re going to heal,” he said.

Sharing that he’s imagined his young son being taken away in the same ways Indigenous child were during residential schools, Xwalacktun said we have to keep moving forward and share that we’re all one.

“We’re all the same people,” he said.