Drawn From Poverty: Art Was Supposed to Save Canada’s Inuit. It Hasn’t.


CAPE DORSET, Nunavut — 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 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.

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 Ms. 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.