NAC Orchestra: Building an arts centre for Nunavut with a little help from some new friends

This is a design prepared by Donald Schmitt of Diamond Schmitt architects for a proposed new performing arts centre in Iqaluit.

Tuesday evening members of the National Arts Centre Orchestra will participate in a fundraising concert for a new and much-needed performing arts centre in Iqaluit. But the connections between the NAC and Iqaluit’s performing arts community goes much deeper than one concert.

The NAC, and in particular, CEO Peter Herrndorf, have been serving as advisor and support group for the arts centre project from the very beginning, says Ellen Hamilton the head of Qaggiavuut!, the arts and culture group in the capital of Nunavut that is leading the charge for a place to perform.

If you recognize the name Qaggiavuut!, it might be because of the innovative production Kiviuq Returns that was part of the Canada Scene festival this past summer.

These days, Hamilton is lobbying politicians way more than she is gathering artists together to create. Right now she is participating in a round of meetings with new ministers in the new Nunavut government. And recently the group travelled to Ottawa to gather support from Indigenous MPs for their project.

“We’ve never lobbied in our lives,” she told ARTSFILE in an interview. But she says their message is getting across.

“There is a sense that people understand the role that the performing arts play in preserving language and culture and that youth are given a feeling of belonging. We don’t seem to have to explain that like we used to.”

A look inside the proposed Iqaluit performing arts centre. Drawing prepared by Donald Schmitt Diamond-Schmitt Architects

Qaggiavuut! recently got a major boost in their journey to new digs. In August, the prominent Toronto-based architect Donald Schmitt donated his services to design an arts centre in Iqaluit. Schmitt is the visionary architect who produced the design for the addition to the National Arts Centre.

“It made us cry. We couldn’t do anything without these drawings. Since then also we have obtained enough funding to prepare a business plan and we have several Canadian ‘leaders’ who have signed on to be part of an advisory committee called Friends of Qaggiavuut!”

The list, Hamilton says, includes former governor general Adrienne Clarkson, former National Ballet ballerina and filmmaker Veronica Tenant, current National Ballet artistic director Karen Kain and Herrndorf.

“They are saying they want to help us make this happen. They have the expertise. They are our big sister and holding our hands and helping us take the next step. None of us know what we are doing. I’ve never even built a shed.”

The Schmitt offer was a surprise, Hamilton says, adding that it flowed out of a meeting last July with Herrndorf.

“He said, ‘Here’s how you build a performing arts centre. I know how to do this’. He said, ‘You need to take a risk, you need drawings and you need a business plan’.

“We said, ‘We don’t know what one looks like’. He actually called up Donald Schmitt and connected us.”

Schmitt visited Qaggiavuut! in Iqaluit in September.

“He was with us for a week,” Hamilton said. “We had all kinds of consultations n the community. he listened to people. We did a lot of sitting in our little office, our little shack. We had the fire on and people would come.”

After this Schmitt returned home and started drawing.

The result is a design inspired by the place and the people. Iqaluit means Place of Fish in Inuktitut and Schmitt’s design is in the shape of two fish facing each other in an almost yin and yang position. in the open area between the fish bodies is another building shaped like a Qulliq, which is an oval shaped oil lamp common in the Arctic.

“One of the fish will hold the theatre and the other fish will hold a rehearsal space, offices and cafe. The middle is in the shape of an oil lamp or Qulliq. It will be a cultural hub for the community.

“What we asked Donald Schmitt for was a place for creation where artists could come together to create art and where children will be able to learn about Inuit culture through performing arts” Hamilton says.

Their final proposal is being readied and they hope their project will be included in the federal budget for 2018 with doors opening in Iqaluit in 2019, marking the 20th anniversary of the creation of Nunavut. They estimate the project will cost about $30 million to build a state of the art facility.

“Peter and the NAC were captivated by Ellen Hamilton and Qaggiavuut! in 2010,” said Rosemary Thompson, the centre’s outgoing director of communications, by way of explaining the NAC’s support. “We just thought what they were trying to do was worthwhile.”

In 2012, NACO toured the North and in Iqaluit, the orchestra performed in a high school gym. That signalled a real need,” she said. Nunavut was the only one of the three northern territories (or province) without a performing arts centre. “We felt they deserved (a centre).”

And as the NAC embarked on its own renewal project, Herrndorf also wrote all the members of PACT, the organization representing professional theatres in Canada, urging them to support Qaggiavuut.

“We think there should be a proper venue for northern artists in Nunavut,” Thompson said, “and also for southern artists to go and perform up there.”

Hamilton says an performing arts centre is the kind of thing that might make Iqaluit the kind of place people might want to visit.

“We are saying Iqaluit will be a destination. Before people would come up here and there was almost nothing to do except go for a walk.” But it’s more than of course.

A centre would building and strengthen community building and healing through culture. For example, Qaggiavuut! provides programming to 3,000 youth across Nunavut.

“And our office is in a bootlegger’s shack. It was the cheapest place we could find. It leaks. It’s freezing cold and the windows don’t work. We creating theatre in there. Our little groups of actors are going out to communities hosting workshops with kids who get completely excited about their own stories and songs.”

Another thing a centre might accomplish is the fend off the inundation of English and American programming with much more culturally specific content that could be broadcast across Nunavut.

“This new arts centre will mean that traditional work can be maintained and sent out and that artists can come together to create new work and do some cutting edge stuff and create new stories and  sing new songs.

“Artists need each other. With a new centre they could be sent back to their communities strengthened with new skills. That’s how you keep a culture going.”

Hamilton knows something about the power of culture.

“I came to Iqaluit after graduating from Carleton University’s journalism school. I worked at the Nunatsiaq News as a reporter. I had lived as a teenager in the western Arctic on the Beaufort Sea and this was my first foray into the Eastern Arctic. I met a guy and ended up moving to Igloolik where I became an adult educator.”

Her first years as an educator were frustrating because her students weren’t learning.

“They gave us these standardized American programs to teach literacy and it was absolutely useless,” she told ARTSFILE this past summer. “I noticed students had been in literacy class for three years and were not progressing.” Out of the frustration she decided to start a theatre group for fun.

“No one was literate in English in the theatre group, but we did this play about what had happened to their culture over the past 100 years called Changes. We were talking in English and Inuktitut and writing notes occasionally. People heard about it and we were asked to perform in Yellowknife.

She tested her group again for literacy in English and found they were all reading at a Grade 7 level. They were all literate.

“I hadn’t taught them anything. It all came from the theatre.”

Hamilton pursued a Masters in adult education to find how this seeming miracle had happened.

“It’s clear we all teach ourselves to read and write by just communicating and figuring out these symbols and writing it down. We were making a play using a language they knew already. Out of that they made connections to English. I have always used performing arts after that to break down barriers to learning even in the prison system.”

She is using the same dedication to the arts centre project.

“We reached out to the NAC when we first formed in 2010. We were a bunch of artists in Nunavut and we basically called somebody up at NAC and said we were  trying to build a performing arts centre in Iqaluit and asked ‘Can you help us?’

“They invited our board to Ottawa and basically gave us a week of orientation on what a performing arts centre is. We met Peter Herrndorf and he has basically been our big brother ever since. He helps us.

“When you are living up here in the Arctic it seems like an impossible dream to have someone of his integrity and his prestige actually to say ‘You guys are on the right track. Canada needs this’.

“It lifts you up and you keep going.”

Tuesday night at St. Jude’s Cathedral in Iqaluit a concert will feature NACO musicians alongside the world premiere of a new work by singer-songwriter Leela Gilday and throat singer Sylvia Cloutier. In addition, NACO musicians will work with local students, educators, community leaders and artists in about a dozen music education activities such as master classes, coaching sessions and in-school chamber concerts. As well there will be a second concert in Yellowknife on Dec. 9.

A view over the water at Iqaluit and a possible new arts centre. Drawing by Donald Schmitt of Diamond Schmitt Architects.

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.