Campaign underway to name Ottawa park after renowned Canadian Inuk artist

Annie Pootoogook at the Sobey Art Award 2006 exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, November 7, 2007. (Denis Bernier/Courtesy Montreal Museum of Fine Arts)
An Ottawa woman is campaigning to have a park in Sandy Hill named after internationally renowned Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook.

Pootoogook won the 2006 Sobey Art Award and was most recognized for her pen and coloured-pencil drawings of contemporary Inuit life.

She also came from a family of celebrated artists in Kinngait, formerly known as Cape Dorset.

Pootoogook died in September 2016 at age 47. Ottawa police deemed her death non-criminal after her body was discovered in the Rideau River.

“She had a lot of struggles in her life, but she didn’t let that define her art,” said Stéphanie Plante, who didn’t know the artist personally but says has deep respect for her work.

Plante is advocating to a have a park behind the Sandy Hill Community Centre named after Pootoogook.

Stéphanie Plante says naming a park in Sandy Hill after renowned Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook will honour her memory and give Inuit students studying nearby a special place to visit. (Idil Mussa/CBC)
“She was a frequent person seen about town in the Sandy Hill area. I think it’s fitting that this park … in the spirit of reconciliation be named after someone, who quite frankly, is a superstar in the Inuit community.”Stéphanie Plante, Ottawa resident

Plante said the park’s neighbourhood is also home to Nunavut Sivuniksavut, an Ottawa-based post-secondary school for Inuit youth.

She said having a public space dedicated to Pootoogook would give students a special place to visit in the city.

“In Sandy Hill we can give Inuit people a place that they can say, ‘This is someone I know, this is someone whose name I can pronounce and I can recognize and I feel home here,'” she said.

Plante has collected more than a dozen letters of support, including endorsements from Amnesty International, the Ottawa Aboriginal Coalition, Ontario Native Women’s Association (ONWA) and Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq.

In an emailed statement to CBC, the city said it’s “committed to working collaboratively with [Plante] through the commemorative naming process.”

Plante said she’s eager to have the park renamed and hopes the approval process doesn’t get bogged down in red tape.

“I think it would mean a lot to Annie and to her family — and to her descendents — to know that her name is being put somewhere permanently and has a wonderful association,” she said.

Listen to the Ottawa Morning interview with Stéphanie Plante

‘A fitting tribute’
Veldon Coburn with his son Sebastian (right), and Napachie (left), the biological daughter of Annie Pootoogook. (CBC)

Veldon Coburn, a member of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan, is the adoptive father of Pootoogook’s seven-year-old daughter Napachie.

He said Plante’s idea is “a fitting tribute” to the late artist.

“[Pootoogook] wasn’t somebody who had [gained fame] by living their life in the seat of power. It wasn’t an elected official and it wasn’t some antiquated individual who just had purchased some land long ago.”

Coburn said Indigenous people from across the country live in Ottawa, but there are only a few spaces in the capital devoted to them.

“Even though it’s Algonquin territory, this is actually the meeting place of a lot of Indigenous peoples,” he said.

While Pootoogook struggled with substance abuse during her life, Coburn said her human frailty was part of her story.

“If we are looking to find and name something after someone perfect, we’re never going to do so,” he said.

“She lived her human life with … anguish and torment, but also the joys of not being somebody who was walking to work in the House of Commons or … into a Senate seat. She was very much a member of the community.”

The attention around Pootoogook’s death grew significantly after an Ottawa police officer posted racist comments online about the possible circumstances.

Ottawa police officer Sgt. Chris Hrnchiar. (CBC)

Sgt. Chris Hrnchiar wrote in relation to Pootoogook’s death that it “could be a suicide, accidental, she got drunk and fell in the river and drowned, who knows.”

In a second post he wrote “much of the Aboriginal population in Canada is just satisfied being alcohol or drug abusers.”

Those comments were exposed by Coburn, which led to Hrnchiar being charged with discreditable conduct under the Police Services Act and demoted for three months. He pleaded guilty in 2016 and underwent sensitivity training.

But Hrnchiar has worked at making amends for his previous conduct, including visiting Nunavut and spending time with Indigenous elders.

Coburn now considers him a friend and said the two men co-wrote a letter in support of naming the park after Pootoogook.

“For him and I to do this together was, I think, quite meaningful.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: New ebook explores life and legacy of Canadian artist Annie Pootoogook, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Sámi-themed Finnish short film makes Sundance lineup, Yle News

Greenland: `Enough of this postcolonial sh#%’ – An interview with Greenlandic author Niviaq Korneliussen, Eye on the Arctic

Iceland: Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson lights up London’s Tate Modern, Blog by Mia bennett

Norway: Walt Disney Animation Studios to release Saami-language version of “Frozen 2”, Eye on the Arctic

Russia: Russia’s Arctic culture heritage sites get protection, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Sweden, Norway team up to preserve ancient rock carvings, Radio Sweden

United States: Set of Indigenous Yup’ik masks reunited in Alaska after more than a century, CBC News

Idil Mussa, CBC

Idil Mussa is a reporter for CBC News in Ottawa.

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