Calls growing for law to protect Inuit art from fakes. But how would it be enforced?

By Arty Sarkisian, Nunatsiaq News - June 8, 2024
This is an example of an Igloo Tag issued by the Inuit Art Foundation. The tag guarantees the art it is paired with is authentically Inuit-made. (Photo by Arty Sarkisian)

Like many Nunavummiut, Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster was very young when she made her first carving. She carved a little seal head while in Grade 5 at Nakasuk School in Iqaluit.

“I ended up giving it to my first boyfriend, he probably still wears it around his neck,” she said.

Brewster is now the MLA for the Iqaluit-Sinaa riding. She spoke last week in the legislative assembly about the importance of government protection for Inuit artists like herself.

“We live in a time when not only some people are pretending to be us, others continue to exploit us,” she said to her colleagues on May 29, while asking David Akeeagok, the minister for economic development, what the Government of Nunavut is doing to address this issue.

There are currently 13,650 Inuit artists producing visual arts and crafts in Canada, according to a report prepared in March for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.

MLA Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster says she would feel more secure as an artist if there were a federal law in place protecting Inuit art from mass-produced imitations that can devalue the real thing. (File photo by Jeff Pelletier)

Almost one-third of them are producing art “with the objective of earning income,” the report said.

However, mass-produced imitations of Inuit art are often sold in gift shops and airports for a fraction of the cost of the real thing.

“The mass production and sale of inauthentic pieces deprives Inuit artists from the opportunity to make a decent living from the sale of their creations,” Brewster said in the legislative assembly.

The issue is also on the mind of Brewster’s federal counterpart, Nunavut MP Lori Idlout.

“Not only is it about cultural appropriation, it’s about opportunities for Inuit to earn income in such a difficult economy in Nunavut,” she said in an interview.

Idlout suggested it might be beneficial to explore the idea of adopting a law similar to the U.S. Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which prohibits “misrepresentation in the marketing of Indian art and craft products within the United States.”

For a first-time violation of the act, an individual can face a fine of up to $250,000 or five years in prison.

Idlout said a law like this in Canada would help “protect authentic Inuit art” and help make sure Inuit artists are “respected for the work that they do and are able to earn income from it.”

But it could be a difficult thing to enforce, said Alysa Procida, executive director of Inuit Art Foundation.

She said it’s complicated to find a legal definition for “Inuit art fraud” and even “Inuit artist.”

“In some ways, cultural appropriation approaches fraud but in a legal sense, it isn’t,” she said.

In legal terms, a plastic imitation of an Inuit carving would be similar to someone making a painting in the style of French impressionists, Procida said.

The fundamental difference, though, is that a contemporary painting in French impressionism style would not compete in value or recognition with works by Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh or Paul Cézanne, she said.

But for someone who is “not an art person” a $20 Inuksuk made out of plastic can feel the same as a piece of real Inuit art.

“It deeply undermines the value of the work because, unlike French impressionists, individual Inuit artists are not valued by the market,” Procida said.

And in the era of “pretendians” — people pretending to have Inuit or Indigenous identity — the job of defining and mitigating this issue becomes even more challenging, she said.

There have been attempts, though.

Under Procida’s supervision in 2017, the Inuit Art Foundation took over the trademark of the Igloo Tag from the Government of Canada.

Inuit Art Foundation gives licences to wholesalers to use this tag to reaffirm that a piece of art was made by an Inuit artist.

“That is helpful information, but it doesn’t stop the fakes from being made,” she said.

This system operates under the assumption that people buying a piece of art care about the authenticity of its origins, which is not necessarily the case, Procida said.

The only tool that can enforce the authenticity, she said, is individual lawsuits. But those are costly. And with individual artists having to bear those costs, it’s rarely a feasible route.

“There is nobody who would like to fund that kind of work,” she said.

Despite the legal difficulties, Procida said she thinks the burden of enforcement should still be on the government, and she does support some version of Idlout’s proposal for a Canadian law modelled on the American one.

“It’s a bit of a trap to think that we’re ever going to get this 100 per cent defined or nailed down,” she said.

“What we can do is not get overwhelmed and discouraged that it won’t be perfect, but to just work with what we have to improve things now.”