An aged man sits unassumingly against the pillar of a bridge over the Rideau Canal. His hands working furiously with a sketchpad and pencils, his long white hair and greying beard tucked neatly inside his winter parka. “I have a story, if you’d be interested, ” he said with a small smile.
A shy Steve Poulin quickly came out of his shell. “I wish I had set up my beard properly,” he added with a laugh.
Poulin has been selling his art on the canal bridge for over nine years. Poulin had humble beginnings as a cabinet maker in Ottawa. He worked hard as a teenager in his father’s shop.
Poulin said that as a young child he would sneak into the shop and carve pictures on the extra panels of his father’s hope chests. Much to his surprise, his father began including his panels in the completed chests.
In his youth, Poulin was also a talented athlete. 16 years ago, Poulin was in a cycling accident that broke his neck. After spending seven years in what he calls a failing recovery, Poulin said he was addicted to painkillers. After more failed attempts to battle his addiction, he ended up in The Ottawa Mission homeless shelter.
To get peace and quiet, Poulin said he used to walk down by the canal and the Parliament buildings. “It’s so beautiful down here,” he added.
Poulin then recounted his road to recovery. “I was never encouraged to draw. In fact, I was discouraged from drawing. I was supposed to be a cabinet maker.” Poulin said his father had taught him to draft, but did not support his love of drawing. Yet, art became the main reason that Poulin beat his addiction.
“When I started to draw, that was really when my recovery began.” Poulin said it became about self-expression and connecting with people and communities. “It was something I needed.”
Even though he had found his ticket to recovery, Poulin said he had many problems with law enforcement telling him to move along while he was drawing. He had never finished a picture until he sat on Parliament Hill, he said as he proudly showed his first completed piece: a drawing of the Parliament buildings peaking up over the tree tops by the river. It took him a month to draw.
Poulin said he quickly realized Parliament Hill was safe, because regular law enforcement could not kick him off federal property.
Poulin spoke of a time when he remembered vendors up and down the streets of Ottawa, when buskers and artists performed for tourists. Poulin said Ottawa had been filled with culture until the bigger businesses moved in. He said the companies kicked all the vendors off the main streets because they saw it as dirty.
Poulin said there are many social implications that go along with the laws that evicted the community of vendors, “It was a cultural undermining. We have the right to earn a living by our own natural means” Poulin said passionately.
“They had no time to deal with these poor they had kicked out. So they ended up in jails, they ended up in institutions, and they ended up addicted. We have a New York City drug problem in a tiny little city like this”.
Poulin said that while he feels big companies do artists a disservice, he is not bitter towards the people who run these businesses. He said his position gives him a unique perspective on the issue.
“I’ve seen a lot of things,” Poulin explained. “I don’t meld into society very well”.
Poulin is concerned that pushing vendors out of cities could spell cultural demise. He is currently urging businesses not to undermine culture for the sake of economic viability. “They’re going to cut down their last tree. They need a cultural wake-up call.”
In an effort to provide that wake-up call, Poulin has begun to sell his artwork with a new purpose: to fund safe spaces around the city for artists. These spaces would give artists and vendors designated places around downtown for their crafts. Poulin said he hopes this will help others recover the way he did.
Poulin is trying to spread the word to help kick-start his program, but is not finding a lot of success. “People need to acknowledge the culture,” he pleads. Poulin said that people don’t realize what buskers, panhandlers and vendors represent about our culture. “Jesus lived with the poor. He taught them how to survive.”
“I’m not a social mogul, I can’t do this alone. But I can draw, and I can raise funds. And maybe people will want to listen.” He said. “I think that’s what my presence here represents. So I became the artist on the bridge.”
Note: This interview was not my first encounter with Steve Poulin. In the summer of 2014, my brother and I had been street performing on this bridge. Poulin came along and demanded we leave ‘his bridge’. After some harassing and angry words, we were forced to go.
Months later, and the incident completely forgotten, I ran into him again. My relationship with him has been one of the most special experiences in my time as a journalist.
Steve Poulin’s is an unconventional story about making positive change in your life. Beginning with his recovery from an accident that should have left him paralyzed, and ending with the picture below. This is how learning to draw helped him find himself again, and how he is using his talent to help others.