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Artist left 'gutted' after First Nations tribute carving vandalized in North Vancouver forest

'I think it’s kind of lost now'

A North Vancouver wood carver says he’s “gutted” after artwork he created in the Lynn Valley forest in tribute to local First Nations was vandalized beyond repair.

Ben Hemara, who’s from New Zealand originally and has an Indigenous Māori background, created the piece, which features a man’s face enmeshed on the side of a stump, to honour the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and səl̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations during the beginning of the pandemic last year.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much left to see of Hemara’s artwork. The piece was hacked up with an axe sometime during the weekend of Aug. 14.

“I’m pretty gutted about it because I put love into it,” Hemara said, who has lived in North Vancouver for the last 10 years and discovered his passion for wood carving after enrolling in a class several years ago. 

“I had no ill intent, it was during COVID and everyone was pretty down and glum, so I thought I'd kind of put some smiles on people's faces with the carvings. And, that's what happened.”

The First Nations tribute was one of a couple of chainsaw carvings that he created on tree stumps off Pioneer Park, which were first a bit of a “mystery” to passersby until he came forward. The wood sculptures can be found near the intersection of Allan and Draycott roads, as well as near a trail linking Ross Road with Draycott.

The first piece, which is reminiscent of the tree-like creatures, called Ents, popularized in The Lord of the Rings series, remains intact, but Hemara is worried it’s only a “matter of time” before it is destroyed as well.

While the carvings weren’t originally sanctioned by the District of North Vancouver when they were first created, they have been widely accepted and enjoyed by the community and hikers on the trails over the past year, said Hemara.

“People kind of know me in the area now because of it,” he said. “I get nothing but questions asking, ‘When are you going to do some more?’ … which I have held back from doing.”

At the time, the district said Hemara’s art pieces were in violation of the parks bylaw because they were completed without a permit or prior discussion, and because chainsaw use is not permitted in forested areas.

In the end, the district appreciated the intention behind the pieces and decided to allow the artwork to remain in the forest, but requested no additional artworks be added due to environmental considerations.

Hemara said he had also spoken with Squamish Nation Chief Ian Campbell about the carving when it was first completed last year and they had planned on holding a small ceremony for it. He said the carving was accepted by the Squamish Nation as it was created with “good intent.”

However, a few weeks prior to the vandalism, Hemara said someone had pinned a long-winded note to the carving, claiming he had done the artwork for the wrong reasons, and it should be removed from the forest.

“I think it is a bit of a hate crime,” he said, adding that whoever wrote the note believed he created the carving for personal gain and to promote his artwork for future job opportunities.

But he said that wasn’t the case at all.

“I do it because I love to do it,” Hemara said. “I like to see people smile and make people happy.

“It was to pay homage to the First Nations here. You know, I didn't need to put a name on it or anything like that, because that's not important. The actual tribute to the first people of the land here is what’s important and should be acknowledged.”

Hemara assumes whoever left the note, is the one responsible for the damage.

Sadly, he said the First Nations tribute piece was beyond repair and with district rules in place, it was unlikely he would be able to try and fix it.

“I think it’s kind of lost now,” he said.

“Quite a lot of damage has been done to it. It'd be really hard to repair. To be honest, it looks way worse than it did before. So, I don't know what the problem was.”

He said he would have preferred those with concerns about his piece had spoken to him about their issues, instead of taking to it with an axe. He hasn’t reported the vandalism to police, but hopes bringing awareness to the situation will make the vandals think twice before destroying anything else.

“But hey, you know, there's not always nice people out there,” Hemara said, suggesting whoever the vandal was should “get some help with their anger issues.”

“I did this with a good heart and love. I love this community, and, like I said, everyone else has been very supportive.”

Video footage of the alleged culprits is now circulating on social media. 

Sgt. Peter DeVries, North Vancouver RCMP spokesman, confirmed the RCMP are looking into the incident. 

He said the RCMP received a complaint yesterday afternoon (Aug 18.) that pertains to non-consensual recording of the actions of two people in a public place and the subsequent publishing of that recording on social media.

"We have opened an investigation and are in the early stages of determining whether or not an offence was committed, and the identity of all parties involved," DeVries said. 

-- with files from Ben Bengtson 

Elisia Seeber is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.