A collection of Inuit art donated to the Art Gallery of Hamilton (AGH) last year in preparation for the closure of Hamilton Health Sciences’ (HHS) Chedoke site is on display in a new exhibit. Carving Home: The Chedoke Collection of Inuit Art was unveiled as part of the AGH’s summer exhibition launch.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, when Chedoke was still known as the Hamilton Mountain Sanatorium, close to 1,300 Inuit people were brought down from the eastern Arctic to be treated for tuberculosis (TB). TB had been largely eradicated in southern Canada so the Sanatorium became a treatment centre primarily for Inuit patients.
“It transcends the importance of the hospital…”
During the long hours they spent at the Sanatorium, carving sculptures became occupational therapy for them. They began with wood but found it too easy to work with. Dr. Hugo Ewart, Medical Superintendent of the Sanatorium, began shipping soapstone down from Northern Ontario for them to use instead.
Many of the sculptures remained at Chedoke in the following decades, on display for patients and visitors to enjoy. Prior to HHS vacating the site at the end of 2016, the collection needed to find a new home.
“When the time came for us to vacate the Chedoke site we had the question in mind, what will we do with this tremendously important legacy,” says HHS President and CEO, Rob MacIsaac. “It transcends the importance of the hospital and really has become part of the city’s heritage.”
An anonymous donor purchased the art from HHS at its appraised value and donated it to the AGH.
“The recent donation of over one hundred sculptures produced by Inuit artists during their recovery at the Mountain Sanatorium provides the gallery with an opportunity to invest in research and to begin the critical work of building partnerships with communities both in the North and South,” says Shelley Falconer, president and CEO of the AGH. “The AGH is deeply grateful to all the Inuit artists who embraced and created this distinctly characteristic expression.”
Many former Chedoke staff attended the opening of the exhibit which featured traditional Inuit drumming and throat singing. Hilda Ferrier, who worked as a nurse and cared for young Inuit patients was overjoyed to see the work on the stage it deserves. “I’m really pleased to see it all together,” she says. “It brings back memories.”
Special guest, Nancy, also attended the launch. When she was just five-years old, she was brought to Hamilton from the Cumberland Sound area for a year of treatment. She recalled for the audience her experience living in the Holbrook Pavilion, going to classes and watching parades on the hospital grounds. “Coming to Hamilton made me a stronger person,” she said, recalling her transition from a traditional way of life to the modern amenities of the Sanatorium. “I learned about the larger world.”
The funds from the donor’s purchase will be dedicated entirely to enhancing care and creating welcoming hospital environments for Indigenous patients and their families. One of the first projects is a family room being created at McMaster Children’s hospital.