Acclaimed Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook pregnant and homeless, living on the street in Ottawa

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Acclaimed Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook and her common law partner Bill Watt, are living on the streets and expecting a baby together sometime in October.

Photograph by: Wayne Cuddington , 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.


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problems with verifying Pootoogook’s identity as she has lost her birth certificate, and her other ID documents are no longer valid.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’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.”

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