These Nunavut Teenage Artists Finished a Massive Toronto Mural

Zoe McKnight

Despite some tough statistics, their home of Cape Dorset, Nunavut is known as the Inuit Art Capital of the World.

Toronto got a little better looking thanks to this mural. Photo via Tobin Grimshaw

Parr Etidloie has been asked several times what he wants people to understand when they look at a massive mural he and his friends painted on a wall in downtown Toronto.

"There's a town called Cape Dorset in Nunavut," is his best answer.

Cape Dorset is separated from Toronto by 21 degrees latitude, 23 degrees Celsius, 2,294 kilometres, history, and by statistics.

Those statistics can make your head spin. The suicide rate in Nunavut is ten times the national average and it has one of the highest youth suicide rates in the world. Life expectancy for men is ten years shorter than average. In the last census, the unemployment rate of Cape Dorset was 22 percent. The high school drop out rate is more than 40 percent. Drugs and depression are more common than in the rest of Canada, as is physical and sexual abuse.

But Cape Dorset is also known as the Inuit Art Capital of the World. The federal government has boasted that 90 percent of the population over 15 years of age is involved in arts and crafts. But to Latch Akesuk, Audi Qinnuayuaq, Parr Etidloie, and Cie Taqiasuq, Cape Dorset is just "my hometown."

They like to point out how much things cost there in comparison to the south: smokes are twice the price, a half-litre can of cherry-lime-flavoured ice tea is 12 or 13 bucks, and a gram of weed can go for $80 or more if town is fogged in and supplies have run out.

Toronto artists Patrick Thompson and Alexa Hatanaka met the teens last year when they painted a mural on the side of the elementary school in Cape Dorset as part of a youth initiative they founded called Embassy of Imagination.

Murals don't paint themselves. Photo by author

This summer, the pair brought Akesuk, Qinnuayuaq, Etidloie, and Taqiasuqto to Toronto for nearly three weeks to create their own mural down south. It almost didn't materialize—despite the $60,000 in grants in place from the City of Toronto, Heritage Canada, the Canada Council for the Arts, and other partners—because the original site fell through. However, Thompson and Hatanaka—who have spent a decade working on arts projects in Arctic communities—found a new, better wall at Church Street near King Street just days before the teens arrived.

This past Thursday, the 18-metre mural was completed. It's a vibrant image of an old man carrying the weight of the world on his back: a broken-down snowmobile, a walrus, a caribou, dogs and fish, human faces and human hands. The concept came from a story Etidloie likes to tell about his grandfather lugging a snowmobile home across the ice. He swears it's true.

Besides painting, the trip south involved a crash course in cultural studies. Andrew Hunter, the Art Gallery of Ontario's Canadian curator spent a Sunday giving the teens a special tour. His priority at the AGO, he explained, is Indigenous artwork, which is given a place of prominence in the Canadian gallery.

One of the main things that held the quartet's attention during their visit was a 2012 drawing called Cape Dorset From Above by Shuvinai Ashoona. Standing in front of it, they pointed out their school and the airport, the co-op store and the graveyard. A Charlie Ugyuk sculpture and a drawing by Tim Pitsiulak—just "a guy from town," according to Taqiasuq—also commanded a few moments' pause.

The rest of the time, they argued in Inuktitut and horsed around, shuffling along in matching pairs of cheap slide flip-flops that were acquired by a friend of Thompson and Hatanaka. (When they left Cape Dorset, the ground was still frozen.) At the end of the tour, Qinnuayuaq shyly presented Hunter a three-layer linocut of a polar bear.

At the National Gallery of Canada the weekend before, a similar tour of Inuit art took place in the archives. It hit closer to home. The national gallery holds nearly three dozen stone cuts and graphite drawings by Parr, 16-year-old Etidloie's great-great-grandfather and namesake.

"It was amazing. It was cool to see his real work, not a print," he said. It was Thompson who told him the man was famous. It's not something he learned at home.

His ancestor's stone cuts portray the hunt: dog teams, geese, walrus, and people swaddled against the cold. The work, which was even posthumously made into an official postage stamp, depicts "an old man's love for a disappearing way of life," according to a west coast gallery that once displayed his work.

Artists Cie Taqiasuq and Parr Etidloie. Photo by the author.

In Ottawa, Etidloie sold a few soapstone inukshuks for $20—cigarette money. His father was also a well-known artist, a carver, but the son learned the technique from friends. Isaac Etidloie died last year from pills and alcohol.

"My dad didn't really care about us. He lived in Iqaluit. I was OK with it because my grandparents feel like they're my parents," said the junior Etidloie.

Etidloie, who drew the original outline of his grandfather for the mural, can only make a buck here and there. He can't get a job because he doesn't have a social insurance number or a birth certificate. He said he was born without a name.

Taqiasuq, 17, painted the walrus. His grandfather taught him how to draw, and how to hunt. They used to go out on the land for months at a time but he said they don't do that much anymore. Taqiasuq should have graduated this year from high school but found the Alberta curriculum too tough and needs another English credit. He wants to stay in the north, maybe go to college. He misses the water back home.

Qinnuayuaq, 15, painted the dogs, fish and hands and Akesuk, 14, painted the caribou. While working on the mural, they often stressed everyone out by disappearing, but otherwise kept pretty quiet.

Maybe there's not much to say. This little crew, while most of them have recognized artists in their families, have faced more than their share of tragedy. An 11-year-old boy they knew well committed suicide just days before his birthday last year. Parents have died mysteriously, left home, fell into the bottle. In some cases, those parents left a legacy of trauma, neglect, and abuse before their exit.

Thompson had to work to keep them motivated. "It's not your everyday school trip for these kids. They deserve a different kind of approach," Thompson said.

"People who have been through the worst, if they can make it through to the other side and be self-sufficient, could be so useful in chaperoning the next generation. To be leaders," Thompson said. "So how do you help them get through this part of their lives so they don't eat themselves alive like so many other people?"

In Cape Dorset, art isn't just a hobby, or an escape. It's a viable industry. The famous Kinngait Studios has produced countless artists, many of whom have reached international acclaim. But in a place where a substantial portion of the population—one in five, according to the territory's tourism board—considers making art their job, there is no full-time, dedicated art program.

"It seems odd there isn't the framework there for young people to make art and explore things on their own terms," Hatanaka said.

"Some of these kids don't really have an outlet. They don't really want to go home after school. They want to do something. It seems pretty obvious that would be a positive and useful thing to develop: creativity."

In the north, young people are the most at risk, said Allison Crawford, program director of the Northern Psychiatric Outreach Program through the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Crawford works often in the Baffin region and was called in to Cape Dorset when the 11-year-old died. Social explanations for suicide among Indigenous Canadians include historical trauma related to colonialism as well as abuse and addiction.

"People suffer greatly from all that loss. They are so burdened by it," she said. "But there are no activities for kids. People recoiled into their own individual ways of dealing with it. There are no collective ways."

Art projects like this can strengthen identity and resilience and provide meaningful work, and can transform traumatic experiences for individuals in a way that's manageable and useful, she said. It can also have a positive "ripple effect" for families and the small town itself.

After this, Hatanaka and Thompson move on to other big projects: an installation at Way Home Festival north of Toronto, a mural in Inukjuak, Quebec, a piece in Denver, Colorado.

Akesuk, Qinnuayuaq, and Taqiasuq have headed home. Etidloie is setting sail for Greenland as part of an expedition excursion for which he won a scholarship, and he believes he can finish high school in Ontario. He loves his hometown but knows he needs to get out for a while. He wants to be a pilot some day.

The mural is titled Piliriqatigiingniq, meaning "to work together towards a common goal." It will remain for at least five years and soon a plaque will be installed bearing the names of the artists in both English and Inuktitut.

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