Inuit artist’s last days: fraught, unstable and unsafe
Annie Pootoogook’s former partner convicted of assaulting her in 2012
OTTAWA—William Watt keeps what he says is the last drawing Annie Pootoogook ever made in a glass frame on a stand beside his bed.
In Pootoogook’s signature pastel pencil crayons, it depicts a smiling woman exuding love. On the back of the drawing, written beside the name Annie Pootoogook, is the work’s title—“Full of love”—and the date, Nov. 21, 2015.
Watt said she didn’t draw anything after that.
Watt still keeps Pootoogook’s glittery headbands and lip gloss on a shelf in his bathroom. Her laundry still lies in a pile on his bedroom floor.
“She just left without a note,” Watt said. “I thought she was going to come back like she always did when she would leave to go drinking.”
Watt, who spoke to Nunatsiaq News from his south Ottawa apartment Oct. 4, said Pootoogook left their place Sept. 10 and he never saw her again.
When asked what he was doing the day she died, he said he doesn’t remember specifically: He may have been panhandling in his usual spot near Billings Bridge Mall. Or maybe he went to Tim Horton’s for his daily morning coffee.
He said he knows that many of Pootoogook’s friends and others in Ottawa’s Inuit community suspect he was involved in her death.
Several friends have told Nunatsiaq News that, in the days before her body was found, Pootoogook told them she was “afraid for her life”—that she was hiding, fleeing from an abusive relationship, and had been threatened by Watt.
“She never said anything to me about fearing me or anything,” Watt said. “She never expressed any of those feelings toward me.”
He said she made up lies to her friends to justify her drinking.
“I always told her, you got to stop drinking,” Watt said. “She resented me for that.”
He said when Pootoogook wanted to be alone to drink, she’d end up on the streets, or at the homeless shelters.
He admitted he hit her once, four years ago, but only because she gave him a sexually transmitted disease. That was the only time, he said.
“I don’t want to talk about her like that, but she had an alternate lifestyle. She had a double life, he said.
“I always said if you want to drink yourself to death, don’t do it at my house,” Watt said.
Reading the King James Bible is helping him through the grieving process, he said. It lies open on the table where Annie used to draw.
“I’m starting to get angry at police,” Watt said. “I feel like they aren’t trying to find out what happened to her.”
According to documents obtained at the Ottawa courthouse, Watt was convicted for assaulting Pootoogook in 2012 while he was on probation. He served 45 days in jail and remained on probation for two years afterward.
His criminal record includes a number of theft convictions but no other assaults. Watt is currently facing charges of obstruction, disturbing the peace and possession of illegal substances from an altercation with an officer on the street in July. His next court date is scheduled for Oct. 20.
The Ottawa Police Service issued a public plea for help to try to pin down Pootoogook’s last movements before her death. The river bank where her body was found is not visible to nearby surveillance cameras.
Although Ottawa police initially ruled out foul play, the case was handed over to the major crimes unit a few days later to investigate “suspicious elements.”
Staff Sgt. Bruce Pirt told Nunatsiaq News Oct. 3 that Watt is not a suspect at the moment.
“You need to have a homicide for there to be a suspect,” Pirt said.
Pootoogook’s body has not yet been released to the family because the investigation into her death continues.
Police are also now investigating whether one of their own members, Sgt. Chris Hrnchiar, made derogatory comments toward Pootoogook, and Aboriginal people in general, in the comment section of an Ottawa Citizen story on Pootoogook.
Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau, responding to accusations of racism in the force, told CBC Radio’s Ottawa Morning talk show that police members are “only human” and that they all have biases, and that those comments do not reflect the sentiments of other OPS members.
It’s unclear how long the investigation into Hrnchiar will take or whether the results will be made public.
Meanwhile, Nunatsiaq News spent several days tracking down Pootoogook’s friends and family members, some of who live on the street and struggle with their own challenges of poverty, mental illness and addiction.
But even if half of what they say is true, Pootoogook’s end of life was fraught, unstable and unsafe.
Pootookgook’s friend Susan Strang, who spoke to Nunatsiaq News, claims to have seen Pootoogook on the morning of her death, Sept. 19., about 7:10 a.m. outside the Shepherds of Good Hope shelter in the Byward Market where Pootoogook sometimes stayed.
Strang said she shared cigarettes with Pootoogook at about the time the shelter serves breakfast. Pootoogook did not have breakfast. According to Strang,Pootoogook walked off around 7:30 a.m. down Murray St.
Strang also said she saw Pootoogook the day before, on Sept. 18, at about 11 a.m. She said Pootoogook asked to talk to her alone and then confided to her that she was afraid Watt would find her, that she was trying to leave him because he hit her and threatened her.
Khalid Lasfar, an ex-boyfriend of Pootoogook’s, said he also saw her on Sept. 18, about two hours before Strang. At about 9 a.m. he saw Pootoogook with their friends, including Itee Akavak and Oleekie Etungat.
Several of Pootoogook’s closest friends said she was running away just before she died—that she was afraid for her life.
Nunatsiaq News cannot prove those accusations—and Watt claims Pootoogook made up stories when she was drinking. Nonetheless, many sources, speaking separately and independently, told similar stories of fear and intimidation.
One friend who has known Pootoogook for years and saw her regularly, asked to remain anonymous because she said she fears Watt.
This woman said Pootoogook told her she didn’t want to draw any more because Watt would either tear up her drawings or, when she sold them, he would take the money or control how she spent it. She says Pootoogook told her this past summer that she wanted to move back to Cape Dorset, but couldn’t afford to.
“He seemed controlling of what she did and the money and booze she always had, from what I saw in person,” said Katherine Takpannie, who interned at Ottawa’s SAW Gallery, where Pootoogook’s works have been exhibited. “But she never told me about beatings.”
Takpannie says the people who knew Pootoogook best were the those on the streets.
Another friend, Manasie Ikalukjuak, said Pootoogook told him “about a week before she died” that she was afraid Watt was going to find her and harm her.
He says he saw Watt verbally abuse Pootoogook often and that Pootoogook told him her partner would hit her in places where others couldn’t see the injury—the crotch, the hips, the sides.
Ikalukjuak said when Pootoogook needed a place to stay, he would take care of her.
“She was a tiny little girl—she was scared,” Ikalukjuak said. “She told me the last time I saw her that Bill [Watt] was threatening her with a knife.”
Silas Qayaqjuaq hadn’t seen her in about six months but said he had known Pootoogook since the 1980s. An artist himself—a carver—he knew her mother and her grandmother through the Inuit art circles.
Qayaqjuaq and Ikalukjuak say Watt controlled her whereabouts when she was not fleeing him to stay on the streets.
“For years, she was always afraid of him,” Ikalukjuak said. “I took care of her a few times.”
Sytukie Joamie, an Inuit community worker and Pootoogook’s cousin, told Nunatsiaq News he saw Pootoogook last in July and that she had mentioned she was trying to find a place to live. He suspected she was in an abusive relationship.
Lasfar, Pootoogook’s one-time boyfriend, said he took Pootoogook to the clinic at the Mission shelter once. She told Lasfar Watt had pushed her down the stairs.
“It’s a miracle nothing broke,” Lasfar said, describing the large welt on her lower left leg that he says made her limp for months.
He also said he saw Watt throwing beer bottles and shouting at Pootoogook and her female friends on Rideau St. a few years ago.
“I was too scared to try to stop him, but too ashamed to leave,” Lasfar said.