Two decades-old totem poles have disappeared from the former Malahat Mountain Inn, and the owner suspects the thieves are targeting the First Nations artifacts.
Randy Strandlund, who assumed ownership of the now-closed inn atop the Trans-Canada Highway this month, said the most recent theft happened overnight on a Saturday.
Strandlund said he woke up Sunday morning and discovered that one of the totems had fallen down the embankment after being unbolted.
â€œI thought, â€˜Oh my gosh, whatâ€™s going on?â€™ â€ Then he noticed that another eight-foot totem pole was gone.
He suspects the thieves were trying to take the fallen totem pole but that the heavy wooden structure got away from them and fell down the embankment. Strandlund and his son used a ramp to recover it.
Four weeks ago, another pole, a figure of a man standing about eight feet tall, disappeared from the property.
After some research, Strandlund believes one of the totem poles dates back to at least 1947 and another to 1935.
â€œTheyâ€™re pretty iconic,â€ he said. â€œIâ€™ve grown up in the area and always noticed them.â€
Strandlund did an Internet search and believes a picture of one of the totem poles was put on eBay. The post had since been taken down.
â€œKnowing that theyâ€™ve been there for so long, it makes me kind of sick to see someone come along to take them and try to sell them,â€ he said. â€œTheyâ€™ve stood there for so long, itâ€™s almost like grave robbing.â€
On Monday, March 3, Strandlund reported the theft to the Shawnigan Lake RCMP.
There were a total of six totem poles on the property. Strandlund has taken three inside the inn to make it more difficult for thieves to get at them. One 18-foot totem pole, too big to move inside, remains outside.
Strandlund estimated the totems weigh almost 350 pounds each and that it would take at least two people to move them.
The security cameras that watched over the innâ€™s parking lot were disabled when the inn closed, Strandlund said. The inn has been closed for a year after facing foreclosure.
Strandlund and his wife, Lori, bought the property, which was put into receivership by the bank, and plan to rename it Moon Water Lodge and the Lookout Restaurant.
The landmark property atop the Malahat, previously called the Malahat Chalet, has been a popular ice cream and burger stop for tourists and commuters for generations.
According to the Victoria Daily Times, the â€œfamed totem polesâ€ were among the only items not destroyed in a September 1958 fire that razed the Malahat Chalet, which had been operating for at least a decade at that time.
Eric Pelkey, an elder with the Tsawout First Nation, said totem poles carry great significance for First Nations people, a sacred legacy of the carverâ€™s family history.
â€œItâ€™s a piece of history for us thatâ€™s been stolen,â€ he said.
Michael Harry, chief of the Malahat First Nation, said he was devastated to learn of the thefts.
â€œIâ€™m quite heartbroken right now. Itâ€™s not something that I thought would ever happen,â€ he said. Harry said the members of the band will be meeting this morning to discuss how to move forward.
All three men said they hope the totem poles will be recovered and put back in their rightful place, keeping watch over the Malahat and Finlayson Arm.