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Miles Morrisseau
ICT

Susan Aglukark is the most celebrated Inuit musical artist in Canadian history but it was her work off the stage that was recognized at the 2022 Juno Awards, the nation’s annual celebration of music.

The three-time Juno winner received the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences’ Humanitarian Award for her charitable work with the Arctic Rose Foundation, which she founded in 2012 as the Arctic Rose Project to support arts-based programming for Inuit, First Nations and Métis youth in Canada’s north.

It was an honor not just for her work but for the foundation’s success in promoting Indigenous-led programs that integrate language and culture while encouraging emotional and mental wellness.

“The Humanitarian Award presented by Music Canada is a very special one,” she told ICT recently. “It's been a real acknowledgement of the work we've been doing.”

Related story:
Indigenous artists shine in 2022 Juno Awards

Aglukark joins a stellar list of Canadian musicians to win the Humanitarian Award, including Buffy Sainte-Marie, Bryan Adams, Neil Young, and the bands Rush and Arcade Fire.

She also won the first-ever Aboriginal Achievement Award in Arts & Entertainment and the Canadian Country Music Association’s Vista Rising Star Award, and was presented the Officer of the Order of Canada Award in 2004. In 2016, she received the Governor General’s Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award.

‘Canadians are listening’

Aglukark has been speaking out on the challenges facing Indigenous youth from the north since the beginning of her career.

She first came onto the Canadian music scene in 1992 with her single, “Arctic Rose,” one of the first songs to take on the difficult subject of Indigenous suicide. She would hit mainstream success in 1995 with her album, “This Child” and the single, “O Siem.”

“O Siem” reached number one on the Canadian Adult Contemporary charts and on the Canadian Country Tracks chart, and peaked at number 3 on the pop charts – the first and only time an Indigenous artist had reached those levels.

She took home her first two Junos that year for her “Arctic Rose” album – for Best New Artist and Best Aboriginal Recording, a category that has since been renamed to Indigenous Music Album of the Year.

With the release of her second album, “This Child,” the next year, she received Juno nominations for all major categories – Best Female Singer, Best Video, Best Single and Album of the Year – but did not bring home a win. In 2004, she took home the Juno Best Aboriginal Recording for her album, “Big Feeling.”

Her latest album, “The Crossing,” was released in April to rave reviews. It was recorded with Chad Irschick, who produced her triple-Platinum-selling album, “This Child.”

“Susan Aglukark is one artist you need to pay attention to on so many levels; spiritually, musically, morally,” according to a review of the new album in Record World International.

“We all need to learn, and the music is a way to take us on that path.”

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Aglukark believes that in this age of reconciliation the mainstream public is ready to hear more than just the music.

“All Canadians are listening,” she said. “In my experience, many have always supported [us]. So they've always wanted to know, “How do we advance artists? How do we advance music? How do we advance all this other work that is going on?” I would say in the last 10 years, it's been happening, so it's exciting to see.

“We have a generation of artists who are fearlessly and very boldly advocating, but also loving their careers,” she said.

Learning to dream

When Aglukark was growing up in Arviat, Nunavut, the idea of becoming a singer/songwriter was not even considered. In an Orwellian twist, the very system that crushed the spirit of the people had also replaced their dreams.

“We live and work within our communities, within the restrictions of those communities,” she said. “We rely on government to have a decent income, career and pension. So everybody wants that really great government job to have all these things. We don't nurture dreamers.”

Inuit perfomer Susan Aglukark waves to the crowd as she sings on Parliament Hill in Ottawa for Canada Day celebrations on Saturday, July 1, 2006. Aglukark is the most celebrated Inuit musical artist in Canadian history, having won four Juno Awards in 11 nominations since the release of her debut album, "Arctic Rose, in the early 1990s. (AP Photo/CP, Jonathan Hayward)

Aglukark had to leave home at a young age to attend the Sir John Franklin High School in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, nearly 700 miles away. She then left in 1990 for Canada’s capital city of Ottawa when she was offered a one-year job with Indian Affairs as a communications coordinator.

“When I moved away, I had a lot to learn, just living in Ottawa, and very quickly, it became opportunities in the arts,” she said.

She stumbled into performing arts after a poem she had written about students searching for identity was put to music and used for a music video, she told CBC Radio in May.

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The song took off, encouraging her to continue writing songs. Then came the “Arctic Rose” album.

Her work has addressed the legacy of trauma and violence in her community and in her life.

She has spoken out against violence against children, and said she was abused at eight years old by a neighbor who lured her into his home. The neighbor, Norman Ford, was convicted in the 1980s for abusing Aglukark and others, but he spent only six months of his 18-month sentence behind bars, according to CBC News. 

Aglulkark identified him in a public meeting of the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women in Rankin Inlet in 2018, when Ford was sentenced on additional charges of sexual abuse. His name will remain on Canada's national sex offender registry until 2038.  

Her online biography also refers to a period in 1998, when “she was suffering from postpartum depression and found herself in a dark place in need of time to reflect and heal.”

She began a healing journey that focused on her own people, as she “learned more about her culture and the strength and resilience of the Inuit who have been on this land for over 5,000 years.”

The Arctic Rose Foundation now works with young people, providing mental health support through an after-school program that uses expressive arts.

A new album

Her latest album is a cross-section of the things that make Aglukark a true iconoclast.

The title track begins with the words, “across the Bering Strait we came,” which is a challenge to a long-standing Pan-Indigenous perspective that the Bering Strait theory is a false narrative that disrespects not only Indigenous creation stories but the growing archaeological evidence.

“I think it's important when we talk about Indigenous groups in Canada, that there are three distinct Indigenous groups in Canada – there's the Inuit, there's the First Nations, and there's the Métis,” she said.

The connection among Inuit peoples across the north is much more evident across the Bering Strait and around the circumpolar region, she said.

“It’s in the clothing,” she said. “You can trace ancestors through the way that we harvest, the way that we hunt, the way that we prepare food. We can trace connections by language, so there are common words from Alaska across to Greenland and in Nain and Labrador. We have these common connections that are the first kind of pieces that connect us.”

She continued, “And then there are stories, so we talk about myths and traditional storytelling, and we have those … and each region will have its own take on it or their own way of doing it, but they're all similar.”

In addition to songs with her folk-influenced style, the album includes one with a swinging jazz sound that is also sung in Inuktitut. The song, “Tikitaummata,” has an infectious quality reminiscent of the Suzanne Vega classic, “Tom’s Diner.”

The album closes off with a song, “Ataniq Qujaqiliqpagit” (“Thank You, Lord”), written by her late father, David Aglukark. Although sung in Inuktitut, it is in style and verse a gospel song.

“It was in honor of him,” she said. “He passed away a couple of years ago. So I wanted to put one of his original pieces on the album. So that's his song.”

Challenging perceptions

After 30 years in the industry, Aglukark’s musical journey continues to challenge the accepted narrative.

She is aware of the views many Indigenous peoples hold because of the history of Indian residential schools and the role of churches in oppressing them. She chooses to make the music that reflects her world view and her spirituality.

For more info
Susan Aglukark’s latest album, “The Crossing,” is available on amazon.com and on most streaming services as both singles and a full album.

“I think this is going to be one of those tense conversations we're always going to have with our fellow Indigenous, because we know the role church played during residential school,” she said. “But also many of us would not have healed enough or stayed on a healing path without faith.”

It’s a personal journey, she said.

“We talk about reconciliation,” she said. “But the question that always has burned in me is, if we are having a true reconciliation conversation, we must first correct our inner narrative. We have to correct the story inside of us.”

Award-winning career
Indigenous Canadian musician Susan Aglukark has been nominated 11 times and won four Juno Awards, the Canadian equivalent of the American Grammy Awards, including the 2022 Humanitarian Award:
Juno Awards
*2022, Humanitarian Award
*2004, Best Aboriginal Recording, “Big Feeling”
*1995, Best Aboriginal Recording, “Arctic Rose”
*1995, Best New Solo Artist, “Arctic Rose”
Nominations
*2007, Best Aboriginal Recording, “Blood Red Earth”
*2004, Best Aboriginal Recording, “Big Feeling”
*2001, Best Aboriginal Recording, “Unsung Heroes”
*1996, Album of the Year, “This Child”
*1996, Female Vocalist of the Year
*1996, Best Aboriginal Recording, “This Child”
*1996, Single of the Year, “O Siem”
*1996, Best Video, “O Siem”

*Correction: Norman Ford, a neighbor who assaulted Susan Aglukark when she was eight years old, was convicted in the 1980s for assaulting Aglukark and others, and was convicted again in 2018 on additional charges. Details about the outcome of the allegations against him were incorrect in an earlier version of the story. 

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