Mòshkamo: The many paths of Susan Aglukark

Susan Aglukark sings with the NAC orchestra Sept. 20.

Susan Aglukark was just back from her home town of Arviat on the shore of Hudson Bay. Arviat is the very first Inuit community north of the Manitoba border in Nunavut.

She had spent some time on the land gathering cloudberries, watching for beluga whales in the inlet and recharging her batteries.

“We were at the camp fishing and hunting. I go home several times a year,” she said, adding “I am still very connected to my community and my culture.”

Aglukark, of course, is the well-known award winning singer songwriter. She’ll be performing this week in the Mòshkamo festival of Indigenous performing arts. First she’ll sing with the NAC Orchestra on Sept. 20 and then she’ll be part of children performances on Sept. 21 and 22.

These kinds of performances were not in her mind when she first left home to work in the department of Indian Affairs as a translator and later with the Inuit Tapirisat in the Northwest Territories.

“When I moved away from home, it wasn’t to pursue a celebrity career or a creative career. I had never done any of that.

“I thought my life’s path was going to be government work and I was content with that. The job at Indian Affairs was with a nice group of people.”

But within 18 months she started switching gears and moving into songwriting and performing in various Inuit communities. By 1992, she had released the album Arctic Rose and her career accelerated.

“But it was never part of the plan and I didn’t have any of the tools or experience to work with. I went from one learning curve to another.”

Inuktitut is Aglukark’s first language. English is her second language.

“Having said that I have been 27 years away from home and not speaking the language 24/7.

“I am a proficient speaker today. I can translate my own songs and I can write in Inuktitut and translate it into English. But I couldn’t be a professional translator. It is an incredible discipline.”

It is the language that defines the Inuit and vice versa.

“If there was one word to describe the Inuit language, it would be efficient,” Aglukark said. “That describes how the Inuit have been able to survive and thrive in the Arctic.

“Everything had to be done efficiently. The language is the same.

“There are words that can be used in different contexts and change meanings. But Inuit know exactly what context they are using the word in.”

There are complications of course, she said. For example, when we did Diamond Sun with Glass Tiger, Alan Frew had asked me to translate the second verse. There were lines about the shadow of a tree.”

There aren’t many trees north of 60. Aglukark enjoyed the challenge but a different verse would have been a bit easier.

When you investigate Aglukark’s life you quickly find out that she is also a busy public speaker.

“I’m more active in that than I am as a performer. Frankly, in 1995, I had a big hit album (This Child with the hit single O Siem) and after that nothing.

“I had to adapt and make a choice early in my career if I wanted to continue exploring singing and songwriting. Songwriting has never provided a substantial source of income, so I had to look at how else to pay the bills while continuing to sing and write. Public speaking was the logical next phase.”

When she does to a public presentation, she sings in those events.

“Technically I am still singing, but, given a choice, I wish I could make a living as a touring artist but it’s just not there and it hasn’t been since the album Unsung Heroes in 1999.

“I am still madly in love with performing but it just doesn’t pay the bills.”

This very private person has a very public working life.

“I’m not shy but neither am I outgoing naturally.

“My days off are spent in my home and if I have to go to the grocery store well then I have to. But I have always been a bit of a loner. I’m very content with being alone and I still am to this day.”

Being a public figure came with those early decisions and she accepts that.

“I love what I do and I have fallen in love with the work and learning and sharing and all of this. This includes relationships with learners and with teaching.”

But given a chance, she said, she will always hide.

She generally works with two themes in her public speaking. One focuses on her personal story. The speech involves songs that revolve around turning points and the choices she made to heal. Aglukark has been open about the sexual abuse she endured as a young person.

Her second program is called Nomad. It’s all about Correcting the Narrative.

This one, she said, is in response to the challenges put out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

This involves reconnecting with the true story of Indigenous peoples.

“We have as much been removed from the true story as non-Indigenous people have.  So part of our reconciliation process and healing involves finding the truth in our ancestors stories.

That means correcting a narrative that is out there by examining and revealing the story of the ancestors of the Inuit before colonization and sharing that story with an  audience.

“I get very personal. People have to be willing to hear the truth. There is no point in healing and reconciling if we are going to be safe and careful with our audience.

I don’t get into specifics obviously. People are going to go online and find testimonies and see things. To that extent I am very honest about my story. Frankly we have to be. We can’t be safe right now.”

Nothing changes if people don’t talk about the problems, she said.

That is a burden that Aglukark has to manage carefully.

“I have had to make a conscious decision about being very clear with people who share their stories that I am not a counsellor. I’m not a therapist. I am not a mental health worker. I’m not professional.

“And at this point in my life I am not collecting stories.”

People do feel the need to share their stories with her. But, she said, “they can share but then they should find help. I can’t find space for that anymore. I have diverted that energy through the (Arctic Rose) foundation” she has created.

The work the foundation is developing is “from a crisis of environment versus a crisis of community and culture. The distinction is important.

“If we tell people ‘You’re in crisis as an Inuk’, they are going to think ‘Poor Inuit’. That is something we are trying to correct.”

Aglukark’s first album Arctic Rose was revealing of her own story. The outpouring it prompted overwhelmed her.

“I hadn’t intended to be a spokesperson of any kind. I thought, after putting everything I was dealing with on an album, I’d move on to the next part of my life.”

But, instead, it opened all these doors to conversations with many, many people.

“It changed my path. Had I known what would happen would I have written differently. I wouldn’t have. I don’t regret the personal stories and what we started with that album.

“But I was not prepared for how huge the numbers were in terms of what we are learning about the abuses against Indigenous people in our country.”

Her children’s show this week will feature a couple of new songs from her 10th album called The Crossing that is coming out in January. The album title refers to the Bering Strait land bridge that brought the Inuit to North.

The show, she said, “is a small piece of what the early years of our ancestors might have looked like.”

The evening with the symphony will be all about “the incredible beautiful history of the Inuit.”

Like her ancestors, Aglukark has been on a fabulous journey.

“I grew up pretty traditional. We would go to our camp in May and come back in September. We spent all that time living off the land. We caught fish. We cleaned them, dried them and ate them. Everything in our camp was designed to survive the day.

“The more you learn about the history and where these traditions come from the prouder you are of where you come from,” she said.

Meanwhile Arviat today is experiencing the impact of climate change, she said.

“Arviat is in an inlet where beluga whales calve. We can see the baby whales in there every year.

“But global warming, you see it everywhere. There are flowers and birds that have never stayed there as long as they do now.”

Arviat is also a migration route for polar bears, whales and “everything you can name that is an Arctic icon goes through there. I’ve grown up with it. I’ve seen it.

“We see bears on the inlet. There are more numbers than in past. When we went cloudberry picking, I was the lookout for bears. Thirty or 40 years ago we could play there. Now they are there all year long and there are more of them.”

Susan Aglukark with the NAC Orchestra
Where: Southam Hall
When: Sept. 20 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca

Northern Adventures with Susan Aglukark
Where: Southam Hall
When: Sept. 21 & 22 at 2:30 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca

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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.