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An uncanny conversation en route to dinner

I was in Ottawa last week and had the pleasure of having dinner with my friend Lars, who works on the Hill. We had plans to go and have a quick dinner at the food court in the Rideau Centre – I am partial to the Amaya chain for quick vegan and they have a particularly good outlet there. On the way there, we had an encounter that marked me.

We were going through the underpath on Wellington that lets you get from Metcalf over to the Centre. It was a chilly evening, so we were walking briskly and chatting along the way.

As we entered the underpass, a voice hailed us. I turned my head and saw a man bundled up in his sleeping bag. He asked us how we are doing. I said hello back, but he held my eye – I could tell he wanted to speak further.

He said that many alcoholics and drug users favoured the underpass, so he had to compete with them for space. He told me that he was a starving artist. Now, this man didn’t look very rough to me. He had sparkling, liquid eyes and very good posture. I was intrigued. He challenged us, asking if we knew what a starving artist is. I answered that yes, I did. He then challenged me to say my definition. I said: “I think a starving artist is a person whose art is quite selling enough for them to support themselves.”

His demeanour changed quickly. His face softened and his eyes welled up with tears. “That’s about right, friend,” he told me, “that’s about right.” He then told us the most extraordinary story.

He introduced himself as Leo from Iqaluit, Nunavut. He told us that he is a carver and worked in a gallery in Ottawa before things went south for him, financially. He showed us works of art on his phone that he admired and dresses that his mother had sewn, which were displayed in an Ottawa gallery. He then pulled out what he said was his last remaining piece of his creation – an inukshuk he had made of lapis lazuli. He said it was for sale.

He said that times were tough for him in Ottawa and that he wanted to get back on his feet. He assured us that he was not an alcoholic, but that he enjoyed the odd beer and smoked some weed on occasion (but not in front of kids).

He showed us some ancient carvings that he liked and told us about how these dated from when Inuit people didn’t have names, but were numbered by the the Government of Canada’s representatives, because their names were hard to pronounce and keep track of. He said this was a difficult memory because names are important. I agreed that they are.

As our conversation wound down, he said he had to get back to what he was reading on his phone. He didn’t ask for money. He said he hoped we dropped by again, that he had enjoyed the conversation. He seemed enlivened and happy for some human contact. Lars and I shook hands with him and walked off, continuing on our journey to the food court at Rideau.

I was struck by how challenging he was as we walked by, hailing us and posing a question to me. Even more striking was how much he obviously enjoyed the conversation and the opportunity to share his favourite Inuit works of art (he had excellent taste, by the way). This was a man who went from relevance in a previous life to irrelevance because of his social condition. I imagine that most would walk by him and not stop, or dismiss his challenging voice as they walked by, hunching their shoulders and looking down at their shoes.

Leo wanted connection — a chance to share his creativity, his ideas, his knowledge and feelings about his People’s history. I encourage you to stop when you hear a voice challenge you to a conversation. Open your mind to the mind before you. Perhaps it will take a few moments of your time or even make you slightly late for your next appointment, but remember that it may make someone else feel included in your world, if only for the briefest of moments. That is a gift you can give freely, but it is so very precious for someone who is used to being ignored and passed by.

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