“We CAN look after each other better than we do today” and “Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world. We can be a better one – a country of greater equality, justice, and opportunity.” - the late NDP Leader, Jack Layton
Emotional by nature, I am. Very. But this is the first time I’ve blogged with tears streaming down my 40-year old black-male cheeks. I’m bawling because, somewhere in this city I now call home, an extra-ordinary woman is pregnant and living on the streets. Annie Pootoogook is her name.
As I blog, I can’t hold back the tears. Until now, I thought I knew Annie. We were together at the Occupied Ottawa protest encampment at Confederation Park last fall. One of the finest of my Canadian moments, that one was. The moment I received the final invitation to abandon the comfort of my immigrant-world. The invitation to engage, without the slightest shred of fear, with the politics of my adopted country.
Occupied Ottawa on the park was a microcosmic society structured around egalitarian principles. In the spirit of equality and deliberative democracy, we interrogated the issues of our time. Growing inequalities. The influence of corporate money on our politics. The Canada and world we want the future to inherit. It was a communal and compassionate community that fed, clothed, sheltered and comforted the most vulnerable in society.
Until now I thought I knew Annie. I see her almost every day when I walk downtown. She spends “her time on Rideau Street these days, peddling her pencil-crayon drawings to passersby for cigarette money,” according to this Ottawa Citizen story.
I’m bawling because, until now, I thought I knew her. I didn’t. The real Annie Pootoogook is “one of Canada’s pre-eminent Inuit artists, a woman whose work has earned huge acclaim in Europe and the U.S.”
I know some of you will judge Annie. After all, she just “came off another binge of substance abuse, during which she largely ignored her craft.” But she’s also “fought demons all her life – beatings, sexual abuse, alcohol and drugs.”
As I blog, I can’t hold back the tears. Memories. From June 23, 2012, to October 14, 2012, I lived on the streets of Ottawa. Can you understand what it means to arrive penniless in Ottawa after a 9-day Toronto-to-Ottawa (approx. 400km) lone protest walk? How it feels to be forced into homelessness, all because you’ve spoken out against a Canadian charity that routinely violated federal rules governing the operations of charities? Some day, soon, I’ll share this story. This moment, this space, belongs to Annie.
As I blog, I can’t hold back the tears. Annie “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.” But now she “accepts for a drawing — $25, maybe $30.”
As I blog, I can’t hold back the tears. Annie’s “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.”
As I blog, I can’t hold back the tears. On November 1, 2011, I left the streets and got my own place. The Salvation Army on George Street, two minutes’ walk from here, helped me to get this apartment. They’re also trying to help Annie and her common law partner, Bill Watt, to find a home. But the couple isn’t as luck as I was.
Annie and Bill 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.”
As I blog, I can’t hold back the tears. It’s about 9.30pm. Outside, a severe thunderstorm pounds the city as if it were an insurgency holdout. I’m here in my apartment. This apartment blessed with a generous view of the throbbing Byward Market area. A general view of the concrete-and-glass towers of the central business district. A generous view of the Centre Block of the parliament buildings. A generous view of the Piece Tower, that symbol of male dominance in our “progressive” country.
As I blog, I can’t hold back the tears. I’m surrounded by luxuries Annie can only dream of. This 4-year old laptop. Dozen’s of used prize-winning novels hauled from the local used book place. Carol Sheilds’ The Stone Diaries. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. And dozens of hand-me-down things. The stained rug in my squeaky-clean bathroom. The double Simmons-something mattress to which I’ll retire at 3am after a full day of coffee-girded, mad-scientist style blogging. The recliner. The steel-toed, stiff-backed wooden chair with the “Property of CBC” label on it.
Where is Pootoogook Annie right now? Where will she be when the baby arrives in October?