In the late 1960s, Andrew Jackson Steen — who is now nearing 80 — created a large and distinctive portrait of the Northwest Territories government of the day.
He said he loaned the four-foot-by-six-foot painting to the territorial government for an event at Yellowknife city hall in 1970, posed with it in front of the crowd, and never saw it again.
The event was part of the N.W.T.’s centennial celebration, held to mark the 100th anniversary of Hudson’s Bay Company transferring a vast swath of Canada, including much of the North and central provinces, to the Dominion of Canada. It came three years after Canada’s centennial, which saw celebrations across the country.
Decades later, the question of what happened to the painting still nags at him.
“I was proud, that’s all. I had done my personal contribution to the centenary,” said Steen, who is Inuvialuit. “It’s really weird that nobody knows anything about it.”
Steen fears someone may have walked away with his artwork, not realizing its value to the territory, as occurred with the papal flag used during the Pope’s 1984 visit to Fort Simpson, N.W.T.
“It never crossed my mind at the time that the flag should be given to the community,” Chuck Tackaberry, a civil servant at the time, told CBC last year.
In 2021, the flag was returned to the community by former civil servant Phil Bowes, who had recently dug it out of a trunk in his basement where it had sat for 30 years.
Steen has endeavoured over the years to track the painting down. He wrote letters to the territorial government, and posted queries on Facebook, but to no avail. Most recently, his daughter, Doris Butt, reached out to the media.
“It’s very discouraging when you put that kind of effort into working on a piece like this, just to have it disappear,” she said.
As her father’s gotten older, his yearning to find the missing painting has deepened, said Butt.
“He would like to see this resolved before it’s his time to go.”
An unconventional portrait
The only record Steen has of the painting — which he said took the better part of a year to finish — is a slide made before its completion.
But even from that, it’s clear this was not a conventional political portrait.
The base was a collage of newspaper clippings, awash in blue.
Above that, Steen said, were 13 circles, each containing the head of one member of the council of the Northwest Territories, as well as then N.W.T. commissioner Stuart Hodgson.
Asked about the painting’s design, Steen said, with a chuckle, that “maybe it was my Catholic upbringing, to put a halo around each [face].”
This was how saints were depicted in images he saw at residential school in Aklavik, where he learned to paint.
Steen doesn’t have any of his artwork from his school days, either.
“The Catholic Church boarding school took all our artwork with them when they shut down the schools,” he said, “so I don’t know where the hell it ended up.”
No record at the museum
Sarah Carr-Locke, director of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife, said there’s no record of Steen’s painting in the museum’s collection.
“We have some objects that students created in residential school, because the Grey Nuns or others gave those to us,” said Carr-Locke, but they don’t necessarily know which student made which piece.
The institution, she said, has an ethical code that bars it from acquiring work without the permission of the person who made it, or donated it.
But in 1970, “who knows how these things were managed,” she said.
The museum wasn’t yet established, and the N.W.T. government was in its infancy.
Centennial ‘just huge’
Centennial celebrations lasted an entire year in the N.W.T., which then included Nunavut.
The anniversary was “just huge,” recalled Eugene Hodgson, son of then-commissioner Hodgson.
Eugene, who was in high school at the time, couldn’t remember seeing Steen’s painting amid the festivities, but suggested the piece may have ended up with an N.W.T. councillor, or in Canada’s national archives.
Questions sent to the Library and Archives of Canada remained unanswered before publication. A spokesperson for the National Gallery of Canada said the gallery has no work by Steen in its permanent collection.
Officials at the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly also wonder whether the painting made its way to Ottawa.
A spokesperson said they searched last week and found no trace of Steen’s painting.
“We’re all of the mind that it wouldn’t be surprising if it was somewhere in Ottawa or in a private collection,” they said.
$1K offer rejected
Searches by N.W.T. government officials in the late 1980s yielded no clues as to the painting’s whereabouts.
“Unfortunately I, too, have been unsuccessful and have exhausted all leads,” Tony Whitford, then executive assistant to the N.W.T. commissioner, wrote to Steen in 1988.
“Further complicating the matter, most if not all of the people around at the time have left the government of the N.W.T. with whatever information they may have had.”
The letter proposed compensating Steen $1,000 — an offer Steen said he rejected.
“I thought it was worth more than that,” he said.
Now living on Denman Island in B.C., Steen said he doesn’t necessarily want the artwork back. He would, however, appreciate a photo of it, and to be paid.
“I was thinking in the area of $40,000, because it’s no longer just a painting, but it’s a historical document,” he said.
Steen said he would use the money to start a scholarship for budding artists who want to go to art school.