“Indigenous work is all the rage in the Canadian art world. But life in the North [for The Inuit] is as much a struggle as ever.” C. Porter, The New York Times
Hours before flying off to her debut show in Toronto, Ooloosie Saila, a rising star in the Canadian art world, was hiding in her grandmother’s room on the frozen edge of the Arctic Ocean, cowering in fear.
Between her and the future stood the man in the next room, a relative who was drunk and raging — again. Then, she packed in a frenzy. She threw the hand-sewn outfit she had chosen for the opening into a plastic garbage bag, pulled her two young sons out of bed, grabbed her art supplies and fled into the frigid night.
Four days and 1,425 miles found Ms. Saila at the Feheley Fine Arts gallery in Toronto, where the crowd sipped wine and gushed over her ‘bold use’ of color and negative space…Except for grade school, she has never taken an art class. It is a golden moment for the Indigenous people of Canada. At least, in theory.
The country is going through a period of atonement for its history of racism. While much of the world has turned inward, becoming more xenophobic, Canada has been consumed with making amends.
Public meetings across the country routinely start with an acknowledgment that they are standing on traditional Indigenous lands. In history classes, Canada’s young learn about their government’s systematic attempts to erase Indigenous cultures. Buildings have been renamed, street signs changed and in one city, a statue of the country’s first prime minister removed.
Canadians call this ‘reconciliation,’ and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who faces a tight re-election vote on Monday, has made it central to his government and image.
In Ooloosie Saila, many might see the embodiment of these aspirations: an accomplished artist being feted for her depictions of the Inuit landscape in brilliant pinks and oranges.
But the world she returned to after the opening, the hamlet of Cape Dorset, is plagued by poverty, alcoholism and domestic abuse… It’s made up of scattered homes — many boarded up — an aging ice rink and a busy jail, packed with binge drinkers. With no movie theater or downtown, a general store serves as the social hub. There is a brand-new high school, but only because the old one was burned down by fume-sniffing teenagers. The town is so small the streets are unnamed.
Almost 90 percent of its residents live in public housing that is crowded, run-down, and has a three-year waiting list. Suicide is rife: The stony graveyard is dotted with crosses marking young people. More than half the residents rely on public assistance.
Artists like Ms. Saila may do a little better, but the vast majority eke out a living, often below the poverty line. Many support large extended families that depend on them for food — most of it flown in at exorbitant cost so that a single cucumber goes for $4.50.
On long winter nights, when the sun is a five-hour memory, the temperature in Cape Dorset can reach a lung-burning 40 below zero. Still, carvers sit outside their homes under lights, transforming chunks of stone into seals and polar bears, the air ringing with the high-pitched sound of their electric grinders.
The Inuit of Cape Dorset were once the epitome of self-reliance, members of a hunting culture where everyone had a role. They lived entirely off the frozen land, searching for food by dog sled.
Then government workers lured them into the town, built around a trading post in the 1950s, with promises of permanent housing and school. In some cases, they shot their dogs, stranding them.
Officials soon took note of the Inuits’ artistic skills, and thought that they might offer a bridge to a stationary existence, a way to make a living. Art has been a central feature of Cape Dorset life since then.
In 1959, artists created a co-op with an Inuit-led board that oversaw sales and plowed profits into the creation of a general store.
In the center of town is a symbol of the co-op’s success: a new, modern $9.8 million cultural center with spacious art studios and the hamlet’s first gallery space.
Artists stream into the cultural center, work in hand, looking to be paid.’They might sit in a drawer forever,’ said the studio manager at the time, Bill Ritchie. ‘We have drawings and drawings and drawings that will never sell.’By one government estimate, most artists across the territory make only about $2,080 a year. A handful of artists top $75,000 a year.
‘If you work hard like that, that’s what could happen,’ the assistant manager, Joemee Takpaungai, told one artist, Johnny Pootoogook, who was working in the studio on a drawing of five men drumming together. It was a memory from his recent stint in jail.
Mr. Pootoogook’s father, Kananginak, who helped found the co-op, became such a successful artist that his work headlined the Venice Biennale.
But Johnny, 48, has fallen prey to abuse, depression and alcohol. He says he tried to hang himself 20 years ago. For him, art has been the one constant, but he is still waiting for his first show.
In fact, some blame art for the town’s problems.
‘Sometimes, when they get quite a bit of money, they use it to have access to drugs and alcohol,’ said Timoon Toonoo, the hamlet’s mayor.
By any measure imaginable, life for Indigenous people across Canada is harsh…In winter, snow covers everything — the winding roads, the polar bear skins stretching outside on homemade racks, the shells of old snowmobiles heaped in the dump. The airport is often closed and when it is, everyone is stranded: There is no other way in, or out. A few supply ships come in during the summer, but like all 25 communities in Nunavut, Cape Dorset is completely isolated.
One January evening, Ms. Saila sank into her living room couch, watching the 1980s American sitcom ‘Three’s Company,’ flanked by her two young sons and her grandmother, Sita.
Her grandparents grew up nomadically, living in igloos and sod houses. They raised Ms. Saila, but by then they had settled in town.
One night at 11, Ms. Saila sat at the kitchen table, fished a green pencil from a plastic bag on the floor and set to coloring her latest landscape. Her children were finally asleep, so she could work.
It had been three months since her art opening. What had changed in her life?
Her time in Toronto, it seemed, had amounted to little more than fond memories and snapshots affixed to her fridge. ‘It was fun,’ she said quietly.
The co-op manager said her rate had gone up ‘big time,’ but she hadn’t noticed. How much had she saved?
‘Nothing,’ she said again.
As Ms. Saila worked, the back door burst open time and again. First came her sister. Then her brother. Then her aunt, trailing three young children and a boyfriend. They made themselves coffee and opened the fridge, rummaging for food.”