Hidden Toronto: Spadina TTC station totems

Awe-inspiring works of art by artists of BC's Gitxsan First Nation were donated to the TTC in 1979


What

Totems at Spadina subway station.

Where

Entrance to the subway station on east side of Spadina Avenue just north of Bloor.

Why you should check it out

Spadina is the station that never sleeps – it’s one of two in Toronto’s subway system that’s open all night. (The other is Union.) It’s also home to hidden gems. 

The main entrance on Spadina midway between Dupont and Bloor is a little hard to fine – it’s actually concealed inside Norman B. Gash House, the historic circa-1899 manse that was saved from demolition after plans for the Spadina Expressway were killed in the 70s. Here’s where it gets interesting.

The house was designed by architect Robert Ogilvie, who served as staff architect for what was then known as the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs from 1905 to 1919. Notable works of Indigenous-inspired art welcome transit riders: Morning Glory by Louis de Niverville and Barren Ground Caribou by Joyce Wieland.

But it’s at the south entrance to the station just north of Bloor, which is the one most people use, where an awe-inspiring sight greets travellers.  

There, tucked inconspicuously against a wall at the back of the glassed-in foyer is a mythic surprise – three house posts from the Wigwamen community of the Gitxsan First Nation of Hazelton, BC. 

The totems of an owl, wolf and hawk were donated to the TTC in a ceremony at the station in February 1979

Carved from red cedar by artists Fedelia O’Brien, Murphy Green and Chuck (YaYa) Heit, the figures represent knowledge, strength and the supernatural in Indigenous culture. 

It seems an unusual location for such an art installation. But there’s a story behind them.

The totems – which in Indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest historically formed the posts of longhouses – were commissioned by the Wigwamen Housing Corporation. They’re to commemorate the building of Wigwamen Terrace seniors residence across the street from the station and next to the Native Canadian Friendship Centre on Spadina. As Donna Niven, president of Wigwamen, told NOW in 2020, the idea was to bring a little Indigenous culture to the neighbourhood. “It felt important to feel our community around us.”

Indeed, the Gitxsan are one of the oldest First Nations in Canada, going back more than 10,000 years on the west coast, and one of the most important. The community was part of the 1997 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that affirmed aboriginal treaty rights to land claims. Those claims have yet to be fully realized.

But the story behind the totems and their place in Toronto history doesn’t end there. Their present-day location is near where ancient Taddle Creek once flowed. 

The artists involved in the making of the totems also continue to leave their make on Toronto. Heit was commissioned years later to complete another totem at the federal court building at 180 Queen West and a large carving at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University. Those projects represent the search for justice for Indigenous communities. The totems at Spadina, meanwhile, continue to keep watch over the comings and goings of Torontonians.

Read all of NOW’s Hidden Toronto stories here

Hidden Toronto is a weekly feature exploring the city’s alternative history through contemporary landmarks. Read it online each Sunday.

@enzodimatteo

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