The spotlight that shone on Susan Aglukark this weekend as she became the first Inuk to win a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award was a stark contrast to a cloud that shadowed her youth in the far North.
Aglukark, now 49, was overwhelmed with joy Saturday night when she was recognized for her contributions to popular music. In an interview, she spoke frankly of her long journey from a “broken” teenager who struggled to maintain her identity to an accomplished artist greeted by thunderous applause from the crème de la crème of Canadian arts and culture.
“I went through a period of a real identity crisis in terms of, who am I if I’m not the healthy person they think I am. I knew I was broken deep down inside. In my early teens I really started to struggle with that,” she said.
Aglukark grew up in the community of Rankin Inlet of the Northwest Territories — now in the territory of Nunavut — and her life then was filled with confusion and uncertainty.
Moving to Ottawa in 1991, Aglukark jumped at the opportunity to escape the bellows of her home for a life in the capital city. Working as a translator for the federal department of Indian and Northern Affairs, she never thought music would save her life.
“Had it not been for this career, I don’t think I would have been able to heal,” said Aglukark. “I was very, very insecure as a young girl. I became very insecure as a young woman…even more insecure as a partner to my husband and then a mother to my son.”
Aglukark was one of five laureates selected this past weekend as a Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award recipient and she is the first Inuk person to receive Canada’s highest honour in performing arts.
For Aglukark, art played a significant role in her healing journey and she believes that it can help play an important role for indigenous youth dealing with identity issues today.
“We have to introduce every kind of art to our young people as a coping mechanism,” she said. “Where it gets hard for us is we don’t have coping skills in our environments to help us cope…One of the struggles in our isolated communities is we don’t have proper supports in place for teenagers and young people to cope with what’s going on. Sadly, most of us are victims of some sort of abuse.”
Her words resonate on a day when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with young people and the chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation, in Ottawa to discuss the reserve’s suicide crisis and lack of mental health support.
2014 Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award winner, Tom Jackson, performed Aglukark’s O Siem alongside Leela Gilday and Elisapee Isaac as a tribute to her accomplishment.
Actor and singer Jackson, born on the One Arrow First Nation in Saskatchewan’s Treaty 6 Territory, also dealt with identity issues as an indigenous person in a euro-centric world.
Having battled addictions and homelessness in his early years, Jackson — like Aglukark — reclaimed his indigenous identity through art.
“I became an artist because I found a ‘why’,” he said.
“If your why is strong enough to make you cry you’ll be successful…if you just want to have sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, you might get to the top of a hill, but you won’t get to the top of the mountain.”
Other laureates for the lifetime in artistic achievement award included Marie Chouinard (dance), Ben Heppner (classical music), Robert Lantos (film) and Suzanne Lebeau (theatre). John Mckellar was also honoured with the 2016 Ramon John Hnatyshyn Award for voluntarism in the performing arts.
Michael Buble was this year’s National Arts Centre Award recipient but was not in attendance due to vocal surgery he underwent last month.