In Queen’s Park of New Westminster, British Columbia, stands a totem pole that honours Dorothy Maquabeak Francis, a woman whose legacy of service to humanity is still influencing lives today. Dorothy Francis was a member of the Baha’i community, who among many other significant contributions, established the first Indian Friendship Centre in Canada.
The 7-foot totem features a bear holding a shield, symbolic of her name, Maquabeak, which means “Sitting Bear Woman” and the strength in her name rings true to the fortitude she demonstrated in the face of difficulties throughout her lifetime.
Originally placed in 1990, the totem pole had been showing wear from exposure to the elements. Ella Benndorf, a Baha’i who knew Dorothy Francis, took the initiative to have the totem restored to more suitably reflect the person it represented as when it was first erected.
The initiative to have a totem raised in her honour came about in 1994, four years after Dorothy Francis passed away. The totem was carved by Joseph Norbert Courville, a prison inmate who had met and was inspired by her while she was working to implement First Nations programs in correctional institutions. Since then, Dorothy Francis’ family has hosted a picnic every Mother’s Day at Queen’s Park in her memory where friends and members of the Baha’i community gather to share songs, prayers, and short talks at the commemorative totem pole.
This year, with the support of the City of New Westminster and in commemoration of National Indigenous Peoples Day, the totem was taken down on June 21st so that restoration of the weathered totem pole could be professionally done by Bear Sam, a carver of the Tsartlip First Nation of the Saanich Peninsula currently living in Victoria.
With his assistants and participation from the public, Bear Sam cleaned the totem and prepared it for repainting at the New Westminster Museum and Archives’ Anvil Centre. The totem was re-installed on Tuesday July 3rd at Queen’s Park at a special gathering that included song, drumming, prayers, and words dedicated to the loving memory of Dorothy Francis. As curious passers-by stopped in the park to enquire about the gathering, it was apparent that, long after Dorothy Francis’ passing, her life of loving service to others continues to inspire and touch the hearts.
Born into the Saulteaux First Nation in 1912, Dorothy Francis experienced discrimination and injustice as an Indigenous person in Canada. “We had no rights, we couldn’t do anything without a government permit - sell our cattle, buy farm equipment, go after more education for our children - so we struck out on our own,” she once said1. While raising her nine children with her husband, Joseph, on a reserve just outside of Broadview, Saskatchewan, tragedy struck in 1953 with the death of one of their children, a death that could have been prevented had the hospital facilities for Indigenous Peoples been adequate.
Seeking a better life for their family, they moved to Regina, but nobody would rent to a large First Nation family, leaving them little choice but to pitch a tent on the edge of town. It was in Regina that Dorothy Francis founded the first Indian Friendship Centre in Canada and she spent most of her evenings there counselling other members of the First Nations community while they lived in that city.
In 1960, after many years of searching for a sense of place for herself and her people in Canadian society, Dorothy Francis learned about the Baha’i Faith and found peace in the religion that let her not only keep but also nurture her Indigenous identity and culture. While sharing the healing message of Baha’u’llah’s teachings and the essential unity of humanity, Dorothy Francis travelled to many parts of Canada.
Serving as an economic development officer, a First Nations cultural worker, advising national and provincial arts and crafts boards, and hosting a national radio program about Indigenous culture are only a few of the many ways that Dorothy Francis educated the public to recognize the significance of the Indigenous cultures and communities in the country. For her extraordinary efforts, Dorothy Francis was recognized as a Member of the Order of Canada in 1978.