Piece of Charles Joseph’s totem pole in Montreal returned to museum following vandalism, public outcry

The missing hand off the Residential School Totem Pole in Montreal. Photo: Robbie Purdon/APTN.

After a few days fraught with tension, there’s a happy ending to the mystery of a missing wooden hand stolen from a commemorative totem pole outside of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

On Wednesday, a museum spokesperson confirmed that the hand from Kwakiutl artist Charles Joseph’s “Residential School Totem Pole” was deposited on the museum doorstep overnight, along with a letter of apology.

The letter reportedly states “they regret the offence caused to everyone by their thoughtless gesture, and that they were unaware of the meaning of the totem pole represents,” according to a press release obtained by APTN News.

Below is an excerpt of the letter received:

“Firstly, we would like to apologize to all those who were offended. At the time, we were not in a sober state of mind, and we had no idea what the totem pole was … After we realized what this stood for and represented for so many people, we immediately felt sick to our stomach …

“We would like to let all know that in NO WAY, SHAPE OR FORM was this done in spite … We were simply ignorant of what it symbolized, and have decided we 100% needed to return it. … We are sorry, so sorry for any pain and anger we have caused. Love for all people.”


(Residential School Totem Pole lives in front of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts downtown. Photo: Robbie Purdon/APTN)

According to Director and Chief Curator Nathalie Bondil, the museum will be withdrawing their complaint based on the apology.

“It is reassuring to observe the return of wisdom and clarity following an evening of inebriety,” Bondil said in a statement. “The letter of sincere apology that we received from the transient delinquents shows us that art educates and sensitizes us to all of the most important issues, notably our reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.”

The totem pole has been a very public fixture outside the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion on Sherbrooke St. for over two years.

Over the weekend, the museum issued a multi-tier appeal for the hand’s return, after security camera footage revealed two hooded figures removing it before fleeing in the wee hours of Friday morning.

Both the artist and owner are reportedly “very pleased with this conclusion.” The museum will be working to restore the piece to its original form.

Reporter / Montreal

Lindsay was born and raised on the unceded territory of Tiohtià:ke (Montréal), and joined APTN News as a Quebec correspondent in 2019. While in university, she collaborated on a multiplatform project about the revitalization of the Kanien’kéha (Mohawk) language to commemorate the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Before APTN Lindsay worked at the Eastern Door, CTV Montreal and the Montreal Gazette.