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Over generations, Inuit draw inspiration from an unforgiving land
Ooloosie Saila and her son, Pallu, at the opening of her show at Feheley Fine Arts in Toronto on March 7, 2019. Indigenous work is all the rage in the Canadian art world. It was supposed to save the Inuit. But life in the North is as much a struggle as ever. Chris Donovan/The New York Times.

by Catherine Porter

CAPE DORSET (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- 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. She perched on the bed, terrified he would burst in. 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 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.

“It’s an incredible way of depicting the landscape,” said Stefan Hancherow, the associate art curator for the country’s biggest bank. “The paper becomes a stand-in for minimalism but it’s maximal in that it’s depicting snow and ice.”

He asked Saila, who is 28, what had given her the idea. “I just did it myself,” she replied. 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 reelection 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 — a young indigenous woman who is making it.

But the world she returned to after the opening, the hamlet of Cape Dorset, is plagued by poverty, alcoholism and domestic abuse. The possibility of brutality is never far away. The relative raging in Saila’s house on the eve of her trip has assaulted her repeatedly, and has gone to jail for it.

“I’m not afraid of him when he’s sober,” she said.

Cape Dorset — a community of about 1,400 on a bay cradled by low-lying, bald mountains — is synonymous in Canadian minds with art. Local artists churn out works that decorate the walls of corporate headquarters and the homes of the well-off. Cape Dorset prints are featured on Canadian stamps and currency. Its sculptures are the standard gift of Canadian diplomats.

If any town could slip the bonds of poverty that have defined indigenous life in Canada for so long, it should be Cape Dorset. Instead, it reflects the vast disconnect between the country’s aspirations and the grim reality on the ground.

Almost 90% 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 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.

And as for “reconciliation?” Saila has never heard of it.

Her goals are much more practical. She needs to make enough money to feed her two children. And she dreams of buying a snowmobile so she can return to the landscapes of her drawings.

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. The town has other bright spots, including a $240-a-night hotel and a new health center under construction.

By one government estimate, most artists across the territory make only about $2,080 a year. Once discovered, the stars are paid more. A handful of artists top $75,000 a year. This winter, news broke that one artist, Shuvinai Ashoona, had been awarded a $38,000 prize. But they are the rare exceptions.

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.

Saila comes from a line of artists. Her great-grandfather, Pauta Saila, was an acclaimed carver, and her grandfather, Mikisiti Saila, followed his footsteps.

When Saila was in the 11th grade, she became pregnant. She dropped out of school and got a job working at the co-op’s late-night convenience store.

Saila cried when she received $1,900 for her first large drawing. It was more money than she had ever held at once.

All the money went to groceries for her extended family.

“I’m happy I started drawing to get something to eat — especially for my kids,” she said.

Almost three years ago, an Inuit art expert, Pat Feheley, discovered her work. She displayed some of her drawings at an international art fair, and the response was so enthusiastic she planned a solo exhibition at her gallery in Toronto in March 2019.

“I’m excited and nervous,” Saila said before making the trip.

From the moment she arrived in the city, Saila saw signs of Canada’s reconciliation campaign everywhere.

Inside the CN Tower, there was an exhibit of photographs of indigenous dancers at modern powwows, which a sign noted had been outlawed for nearly a century. Walking through the atrium of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., she glimpsed a broadcast of Trudeau delivering yet another apology — this one for the government’s handling of a tuberculosis epidemic in the North.

At the display of her work, Saila sat by the door of the Feheley gallery in a wide leather chair, breastfeeding her younger son Pallu.

She stroked a fringe of beads for comfort.

It was the first time she had seen all her works together, framed and carefully spaced out. It took her by surprise.

“I never thought I’d done that many drawings,” she said, shyly. “I never thought I could sell drawings. ”

The three largest and most expensive — all priced above $3,700 — had waiting lists. They all sold.

The Old Normal
Months later, back in Cape Dorset, Saila sat at the kitchen table, coloring her latest landscape.

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.

Her dream of buying a snowmobile, to get back on the land, was pushed back again.

As 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.

The impromptu party woke both of Saila’s boys, who began racing around the kitchen. She stayed at the table and worked.

Then her son Mikisiti, 5 at the time, climbed onto her lap, took the pencil from her hand and began coloring where she had left off. He had his own goal: Mikisiti wanted his mother to buy him a bicycle so he could join his friends outside.

Ooloosie Saila watched her child draw.

“He does it just like me,” she said, looking up and smiling.

She bought him a bike for his birthday two months later.

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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