I chose to look at two dolls, M976.102.13 and M976.102.14, at the McCord Museum workshop. Each was sewn by hand with cloth bodies and clothing, leather boots, and fur trim and beadwork. One has an interesting beaded disk on his parka. These dolls were made at the Parc Savard Hospital in Quebec City, sometime in the mid-1950s, part of a larger collection donated to the museum by Dr. Walter Pfeiffer.
The Parc Savard hospital opened in 1907 as a Federal Government Immigration Hospital, where newcomers to Canada with contagious illnesses were quarantined. By mid-century, the Federal Government decided to address the Tuberculosis epidemic among Inuit and First Nations peoples. One researcher wrote that one third of all Inuit people were infected with TB in the 1950s (Grygier 1994). The Parc Savard hospital began accepting Indigenous TB patients in 1946 (Lux 2016).
I chose these dolls because so often, research, museum collections, and personal collections of art from Indian Hospitals focus on carvings. However, Inuit have a long history of making dolls and small figures, which became popular collector and tourist items from the mid-1900s. Dolls were also made by Inuit hospital patients – I have seen similar cloth dolls made by patients at the Charles Camsell hospital, Edmonton, Alberta, and the Mountain Sanatorium, Hamilton, Ontario. Following Heather Igloliorte, such art both appeals to a Western audience at the same time that it “acts as an expression of cultural knowledge and cultural resilience” (Igloliorte 2009).
In my experience, carvings are much more likely to have an artist’s name attached to them, written or scratched into the stone or wood. But the makers of dolls, beadwork, and other sewn goods are more difficult to identify, pieces typically made by women. I don’t know who made these particular dolls – there is no tag or name attached to them, and Dr. Pfeiffer did not name the makers of these items in his collection.
We don’t know who made many of the things in museum collections. And we don’t know what happened to some of the people who went to hospitals like Parc Savard and never came home. Maybe these two things are related. There are great gaps in the life stories of these objects and their makers.
Anthropologist Lisa Stevenson writes about “anonymous care” in the TB and suicide epidemics in Canada’s north. Anonymous care refers to a regime where accurate statistics are kept about how many people treated at TB sanatoria and how many lived or died from the disease. But this system of accounting shows indifference to the individual identity of each person and their unique position in webs of social relationships. As Stevenson writes, “Who an individual Inuit was—her life story and familial connectedness—no longer mattered” (Stevenson 2014:29). Instead, Inuit people interacted with the state as solitary individuals identified by a unique Disc List number.” Sanatoria artists’ work, now held at museums, are too often anonymous, so that Disc List Numbers, Treaty Numbers, government statistics and museum catalogue numbers come to stand for people. Hospital artwork therefore also signifies a form of anonymous care. The beaded disk on the McCord doll is poignant in that regard: the government Discs with Inuit Disc List numbers on them were made to be sewn onto a parka or worn around the neck.
When I visited Quebec City last November, I tried to find the site of the Parc Savard hospital. The old building was torn down. In that place now stands the Centre d'hébergement Christ-Roi, a retirement home on a busy street. There is no marker on the site to indicate that there was a hospital that treated Inuit patients from northern places. When I asked at the front desk if this was the site of l’ancien hôpital Parc Savard I received a blank look, and an offer to Google it.
Undoing this regime of anonymous care requires retracing the link between people and places, between objects and the life history and familial connectedness of the person that produced it. Material culture study emphasizes the value of uncovering the links between people and the things they made. It is sometimes possible to retrace those links, and resituate the complex relationships that were made and unmade in the hospital, reconnecting this art to entangled lives and social relationships.
Individual biographies can do this. For example, Kenojuak Ashevak was treated for TB at Parc Savard Hospital between 1952 and 1955. While there, she did beadwork and doll making with Harold Pfeiffer, a non-Indigenous sculptor, who taught the patients arts and crafts to help pass the time and earn pocket money (Walk 1999). After leaving Parc Savard Hospital, Ashevak moved to Cape Dorset, where she ultimately became an internationally famous pioneer of modern Inuit Art.
Retracing linkages can be done by looking at the context in which the dolls were created and who was involved. This can connect places, peoples, and institutions. For example, Walter Pfeiffer, who donated his collection of carvings and dolls to the McCord Museum, was Harold Pfeiffer’s brother. And Harold Pfeiffer worked as a carving instructor at the Charles Camsell Hospital in Edmonton. Inuit men at the hospital kept busy with wood carving, while women knitted socks and sweaters and produced beadwork for a local firm (Lux 2016). Patients at the hospital also made dolls. Some of these ended up at the McCord Museum. Where did the rest go?
I think about the links and connections between hospitals, the Canadian art world, museums, and the Federal Government. Too often stories of colonial institutions are told in isolation: The Residential School System; The Indian Hospital System; So-called “Northern Development” in Canada. But these are all interrelated parts of the larger colonial process extending across time and space. Dolls, carvings, beadwork, and other art made at these hospitals tell a bigger story about health and healing, about colonial structures and capitalism, about the strength and creativity of Indigenous people, and about the relationships between us.
Grygier, P. (1994) A Long Way From Home: The Tuberculosis Epidemic Among the Inuit. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press.
Igloliorte, H. (2009) Inuit Artistic Expression as Cultural Resilience. Younging, G., Dewar, J., and DeGagne,M., Eds. Response, Responsibility, and Renewal: Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Journey. Ottawa: Aboriginal Healing Foundation: 123- 136.
Lux, M. (2016) Separate Beds: A History of Indian Hospitals in Canada, 1920s-1980s. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Stevenson, L. (2014) Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian Arctic. Oakland: University of California Press.
Walk, A. (1999) Kenojuak: The life story of an Inuit artist. Toronto: Penumbra Press.