Byward Market - Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Annie Pootoogook on the streets

A story by Hugh Adams from the Ottawa Citizen.

One of Canada’s pre-eminent Inuit artists, a woman whose work has earned huge acclaim in Europe and the U.S., spends her time on Rideau Street these days, peddling her pencil-crayon drawings to passersby for cigarette money.

Annie Pootoogook has fought demons all her life — beatings, sexual abuse, alcohol and drugs. Pootoogook has lived in Ottawa for the last five years and recently came off another binge of substance abuse, during which she largely ignored her craft. But she is finally drawing again, doing much of it on Rideau, where she has become something of a centre of attention — at least with those who know who she is and want to buy her work.

She usually produces one drawing a day. But it is sad to see how little the shy, diminutive artist accepts for a drawing — $25, maybe $30. Her earlier work, from her days in Cape Dorset, Baffin Island, sells for $1,600 to $2,600 per drawing at Feheley Fine Arts, the Toronto art gallery that kick-started her ascent a decade ago.

But even sadder is the thought of the destitute woman —currently five months pregnant — curling up at night in a bushy area overlooking the Rideau River. Pootoogook, 43, and her boyfriend, William Watt, 49, have been living outdoors in various secluded spots in and around Lowertown since spring after spending the winter in shelters for the homeless. They didn’t like the shelters because they had to sleep alone, in the segregated men’s and women’s areas.

At least outside, they can be together. Still, there are downsides. Bugs for one. Snide comments from those who sometimes spot them through the bushes. And recently, they were both issued $276 fines for trespassing on NCC property, their sleeping bags and meagre belongings hauled away.

Pootoogook can’t take the bugs anymore and says she’s losing her mind being bitten while she tries to sleep.

They are desperate to get off the street, even if it is just into emergency housing for now. With a baby on the way — a girl whose name will be Napachie Marie Pootoogook-Watt — the father-to-be says they are focusing on setting their lives straight. No more booze. No more crack cocaine, a drug on which Watt says he spent $3,000 over a few days last November.

When Watt and Pootoogook, who met in 2010, woke up from that crack binge, they lived in a tent for two months at the “Occupy” encampment at Confederation Park. Then it was homeless shelters for the winter, though Watt spent 32 of those days in jail for stealing booze from an LCBO store. He says he has been in jail a few times for petty crimes, and it was while he was incarcerated last winter that Pootoogook found out she was pregnant. She surprised him with the news when he was released.

Pootoogook is the birth mother of two boys, now 23 and 16, who were born in Cape Dorset. They were adopted by relatives. “There is no interest in having this one adopted,” says Watt, who has a son from a previous relationship.

The couple wants to get out of the Lowertown area, as they say they have too many acquaintances there who were a bad influence when they tried before to stop drinking and drugging. And with Pootoogook pregnant, Watt says his girlfriend has become fearful of those people.

“Being (in Lowertown) is a trigger for them,” says social worker Ian Stolberg, who volunteers his time at StreetSmart Outreach. And the days of continuous hot weather have put street people in “vile” moods, frightening Pootoogook even more, Stolberg says.

But for now, they have to stay. Agencies for the homeless in Lowertown offer the couple three square meals a day, and the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre, where Pootoogook checks in with her doctor, isn’t far away. So far, everything is going well with the pregnancy, they say. The baby is not going to be big at birth, says Watt, but her “heartbeat is fine.”

The Salvation Army on George Street is trying to find them a home. Even former governor general Michaelle Jean became involved after staff at her foundation for underprivileged youth confirmed Pootoogook was in Ottawa and homeless. An Inuit agency in Ottawa was then contacted to see if they could help find them shelter.

But Pootoogook and Watt are clearly frustrated with the Sally Ann and the agencies that are supposed to be helping them. They say they have so far been denied housing for various reasons. Watt says they are not recognized as a common-law couple as there isn’t any record of them ever living together at a permanent address. As well, Pootoogook isn’t registered as a dependant on Watt’s $420-per-month Ontario disability pension. There are also problems with verifying Pootoogook’s identity as she has lost her birth certificate, and her other ID documents are no longer valid.

Pootoogook also refuses to undergo a mental-health evaluation at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre, and the couple are reluctant to undergo alcohol and drug counselling — at least while they’re homeless, and dealing with so much upheaval.

Watt says he thinks agencies “gave up (on) finding us a place because we weren’t willing to jump through hoops.” He says he was on hold for 20 minutes after calling the city’s 311 help line the other day to see if they could get into a west-end facility for homeless families. He hung up in frustration. “It’s been brick wall after brick wall after brick wall.”

Both say they haven’t had a drink or taken drugs for at least six weeks. Stolberg believes them because he saw the couple often when they were drunk and stoned. “I can see the difference,’ he says. “You can tell when Bill is straight.” And even though Pootoogook appears shy and even withdrawn at times, “When she’s under the influence, she is very vocal.”

Adds Stolberg: “The baby is a real wake-up call for them.”

He says the couple wants to be good parents and providers for their child.

With Pootoogook and Watt expecting the Children’s Aid Society to come knocking after the baby is born, Stolberg says “it would be incumbent on the system to find them a place.”

It appears the best way to get them in one would be through the Social Housing Registry, which would put them on the priority list as they are homeless. Ishbel Solvason, the registry’s executive director, could not say how soon a home could be found. But she stressed they need to register so the process of finding one can begin.

Housing Help is another agency that is promising help if they make contact. Their information would be sent to the registry once it is received. As well, Rob MacDonald says the agency would also work directly with the couple to see if a home could be found sooner.

There are various housing options, says MacDonald, and “Ottawa is pretty good in terms of resources.”

There are 56 housing providers in the city, including Ottawa Community Housing, the largest.

Pootoogook’s quick rise as one of the country’s leading artists began about a decade ago after Feheley Fine Arts, which specializes in Inuit art, came across the drawings she sold to the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative in Cape Dorset. Pootoogook’s often disturbing scenes depict contemporary Inuit life as it can often be.

Some of her work appears to chronicle her own experiences with physical and sexual abuse and with being the child of alcoholics. There have been major exhibitions of her work in Europe and the U.S., and she was honoured with the $50,000 Sobey Art Award in 2006.

While it appears Pootoogook wants to get her artistic career back on track, it’s unclear whether she wants her star status anymore. Watt says Pootoogook needs to hire an agent. But he adds that she is very happy selling her work on the street for a few dollars because ordinary buyers appreciate her drawings more.

People involved in her ascent tried “to make her a person she didn’t want to be,” says Watt. “But it’s not about the money. Annie is quiet, timid and introverted. She doesn’t say what she wants, so people walk all over her.”

But Pootoogook interjects when Watt mentions the money thing once more. “I can’t say that I don’t want money,” Pootoogook says with a smile. “I have to buy cigarettes.”

Annie Pootoogook on the streets