Why this Ontario resident wants to donate her Indigenous art

On the death of Queen Elizabeth II, messages of mourning flooded the news, but there were also calls from some citizens of former British colonies for the repatriation of the treasure, the spoils of conquest by the Empire. It’s a clear case of right and wrong for some; for others, it’s an uncomfortable and complex conversation, and it’s happening in places once subject to colonization, including Canada.

Port Hope author Marnie Hare Bickle is happy to discuss how she came to own her collection of Inuit art and artifacts and why she wants to put it back in Inuit hands.

It was the spring of 2004 when Marnie and her husband Bill Bickle found themselves tasked with cleaning out an old house. The couple had purchased the 1947 home from Bill’s 91-year-old cousin Ruth Winona Hawkins Ford on the condition that they take care of the packing and disposal of the contents. It’s a deal the couple happily accepted for the beautiful seven-acre property in the hamlet of Canton, north of Port Hope.

Among the usual rubbish of a lifetime – furniture, clothing, china and souvenirs – was a collection of Inuit art and artifacts: carvings, even a harpoon, casually displayed around the house. But it was after days of cleaning and packing that a small door leading to a crawl space in the attic was discovered. This is where things got interesting.

« What writer doesn’t dream of finding a box of moldy old letters, journals and manuscripts in a dusty attic, » Bickle said. “I found over 300 letters, diaries of my childhood in the Eastern Arctic from around 1910 to 1939, and a few manuscripts of novels – all covered in dust and dead flies – probably written to avoid becoming crazy during the long lonely nights. at some damned Hudson’s Bay Company trading post. It was all written by David Ford, Ruth’s husband from 1946 until his death in 1989.

John Thomas David Ford was born in 1910 in Kuujjuaq, formerly known as Fort Chimo, in the Nunavik region of Quebec. He was descended from British fishermen and whalers who had immigrated to the Devon region of England in the late 1700s and before long his settler ancestors had intermarried with the Inuit. David lived, hunted and traveled with his extended family and Inuit friends, and although the Arctic was his true home, he was forced to leave for five years as a teenager to attend school in Newfoundland. and, again later, when he enlisted and was sent overseas. fight in World War II. Eventually, the end of the war and his marriage to Ruth would bring him south for good.

A walrus tusk carved by Kiugak Ashoona as a thank you gift to David Ford's wife, Ruth.

“At the start of the war, David was posted to the Cobourg Regiment,” Bickle explains. “The CO wrote to his wife asking her to round up single girls from Cobourg and Port Hope to write to single soldiers to help keep their morale up. Ruth extracted David’s name and wrote to him faithfully for nearly five years. At the end of the war, he asked Ruth, by letter, to marry him. His doctor advised him not to return to the lonely arctic because of what they then called « shell shock » or PTSD, so he traveled to Port Hope, married Ruth and built their house.

After the attic was discovered, Bickle first tackled a thick pile of newspapers, which she transcribed from faded pencil onto scribbles of yellowing newsprint in the book ‘Native Born Son; The Diaries of J. David Ford” (Blue Denim Press, 2018). It is in these fascinating and sometimes thought-provoking pages that we meet Ford and his Inuit family, and come to understand the depth of his connection to the North and the earth’s first inhabitants.

David was fluent in Inuktitut, which made him uniquely qualified to liaise with the Canadian government’s Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources, and in 1959 he was hired as a translator and host for two sculptors Inuit, Kiugak Ashoona and Eegyvudluk Pootoogook, who traveled from Kinngait, then known as Cape Dorset, Baffin Island, to demonstrate carving and engraving at the Stratford Festival exhibition. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip had embarked on a tour of Canada and stopped in Stratford to see a production of Shakespeare at the Stratford Festival Theater, then only two years old, and to meet and receive gifts from the two sculptors Inuit; David translated between the royal couple and the artists.

Swan surrendered by Eegyvudluk Pootoogook, circa 1959.

The pieces in Bickle’s collection are a product of the Stratford exhibit. « I have Kiugak Ashoona’s carved and engraved walrus tusk for Ruth and the letter he wrote thanking Ruth for allowing her husband to look after them while they were in Stratford, » said said Bickle. « And I carved the swan Eegyvudluk Pootoogook while they waited in Stratford for a shipment of stone to arrive from the Arctic. »

Bickle began transcribing David’s copious notes, researching and cataloging the collection in 2013, and when she learned that the walrus tusk had been carved and engraved by Ashoona, she emailed curator Darlene Wight of Inuit art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, which had prepared a solo exhibition. , « Kiugak Ashoona: Stories and Imaginations of Cape Dorset » in 2010, to let him know that another piece was available. While waiting for a response, Bickle has finished publishing « Native Born Son ».

When she learned that the Winnipeg gallery was building an Inuit art and culture center – Qaumajuq – and that Goota Ashoona, Kiugak Ashoona’s daughter and Eegyvudluk Pootoogook’s niece, had been commissioned to carve a sculpture to accommodate visitors, Bickle focused on the found collection. « I wanted to have David’s letters about his time with Ashoona and Pootoogook, photos of them and their work, ready and in book form for the opening of Qaumajuq, especially since Ashoona’s daughter, Goota Ashoona, had been commissioned to carve an impressive stone sculpture for the entrance.

Located in downtown Winnipeg, Qaumajuq is home to the largest public collection of contemporary Inuit art in the world. The center is a gathering place for all, whose mandate is to bridge the gap between Canada’s North and South through art and education, in the spirit of truth and reconciliation. The center opened its doors with a two-night virtual celebration at the end of March 2021.

Marnie Bickle in her Port Hope home with an Inuit print, "Woman operating Husky."

“I had hoped that my contribution would be a tribute to the artistry of the Ashoona family, but the pandemic put everything on hold and during this time I began to wonder if the 1959 Festival exhibition would perhaps -to be an uncomfortable memory for the Inuit, how they were exposed, exploited. We knew so little about the Arctic and its people at that time. The TV wasn’t fancy, we hadn’t traveled like we would 50 years later; I wanted to have a few conversations with the curators at the Inuit center before finishing this project.

In 2019, Bickle wrote to Wight again, to assess the gallery’s level of interest in the collection, but COVID-19 got in the way.

Marnie and Bill Bickle have no children, and at 71 she is thinking about the future of her collection — an intimate record from another time and another place — and would like to bequeath the collection, including including personal letters between Ashoona and Ruth in syllabic Inuktitut, to an institution that would receive him with a homecoming. But, as special as Bickle’s memories are, she’s not alone.

« There are a lot of private collections now looking to be placed, whether it’s auction – Primitive Arts – or donation, » Wight said on a call. “Many of the collections have interesting origins and stories, and Marnie’s appears to be very well documented, which adds to its value. I would be interested in a donation of the collection and archival documents.

Finally, after many back and forths, the news Bickle wanted to hear. « I want to personally deliver the items to the WAG, » Bickle said.


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