Snapshot: Dr. Susan Aglukark, O.C.

Our Snapshot article series features Q&As with key pioneers, innovators and emerging practitioners across the multidisciplinary and multi-dimensional arts and health field in Canada, who are part of the Arts Health Network Canada community.

Interview by: Zara Contractor

“Susan Aglukark is truly of Canada’s most significant cultural treasures. Apart from being a beautiful singer and powerful songwriter, she provides a significant view to the culture of our northern communities. She is am inspiration to humanity.”

- Deane Cameron

Susan Aglukark is one of Canada’s most unique and most honored artists. An Inuk from Arviat, Nunavut, Susan has been walking in a tension between two worlds, a defining note in her remarkable career.

She was a rare and exotic presence in the mainstream music world—an Inuk woman, a modern woman, a strong woman with something important to say is sometimes very rare in the entertainment industry --- Susan embodied pure, graceful honesty and strength. As her songs climbed the charts, her stories and her candor about the struggles of the Inuit and Aboriginal communities, and her bravery as she opened up about her own anger and struggle won her an audience beyond that of most pop artists.

Aglukark’s musical success is even more interesting when you realize she didn’t start her career until she was 24, with no modern musical orthodoxy to draw on Aglukark was free to respond to the sounds and styles that touched or motivated or inspired her. “When I move around creatively in my music it’s because one particular album has recently affected me.” In essence it has allowed her to build a musical sound that often starts with the strength of the drum, and yet sounds completely contemporary. But perhaps the real appeal of her music is that in an era where the most popular music is often less relevant than style or mood, her lyrics are where she lives. “The songs are driven by the stories. It’s all about the stories.” 

As much as she writes and sings about her people, the songs Susan Aglukark creates have something in them that speaks to all of us, whether it’s the longing of a woman growing old for the traditional life that she was taken away from, (“Bridge of Dreams”) to an gentle anthem for peace and tolerance, (“O Siem”—joy in community), Aglukark’s artistic vision is ultimately a universal one.  

She will be performing a selection of songs from her Christmas album, 'Dreaming of Home', in London, Toronto, Oakville in December.

1. First off: Congratulations on winning the prestigious Governor General’s Performing Arts Award! Could you tell us a bit about your journey in the performing arts world?

Thank you, I kind of stumbled into this career in the early 1990’s when I moved to Ottawa and found myself very quickly working with a gentleman named Larry Crossley, he wrote the music behind the poem Searching that I wrote in high school. Between this project (which later became a music video and aired on MuchMusic) and working with another producer for CBC Radio, Les McLaughlin through whom I met Randall Prescott with whom I began writing and recording my first album Arctic Rose. Shortly after this I found myself with a record deal with EMI Music Canada, my debut album This Child was released in 1995 and 21 years later, I am still writing, recording and singing J

2. You have said "Writing is truly my healing", could you elaborate on how writing, and singing have contributed to your health and wellbeing?

I left small town Nunavut for very different reasons than what I stumbled into which is to say that I did not leave to pursue this career, I had not sung before, I do not know how to read or write music, I play guitar very badly, truthfully, in the beginning, I sang very badly but I loved it, the first time I “wrote” with Larry Crossley I felt something begin to wake up, I did not know one could feel this way. This became the pursuit, a reawakening of the artist if you will. As I got better, as I got stronger, as I continued the path of committing to the music and singing and writing, I wanted it more and more, I was less afraid to be the artist, more awake as an artist and as a person, I was “unbecoming” the institutionalized person was when I first moved to Ottawa and was/am becoming a full on engaged artist, this is my healing.

3. Your songs often deal with difficult subjects, from suicide, to the trauma of sexual abuse. Do you feel that music helps to open the conversation on such complex topics, and how have people responded?

I do, I did not set out to give them voice, I knew only that this is what I was struggling with in  my early years and that I needed to get these bad feelings and emotions out of myself, this conversation has carried on since the release of Arctic Rose and my fan base has been very open about their own experiences, this is dialogue.

4. You have been a strong voice for social issues facing indigenous youth in communities across the North, and have led a suicide prevention campaign #ArcticRoseWarCry, could you tell us a little bit about how you are using the Arts to help communities heal?

My writing, my art (such as it is) has become my safe place, the place I go to when I feel the grips of fear (of being my whole self) try to keep me back, I have started up the Arctic Rose Foundation where I will share this experience, introducing art journaling, song writing, painting, dancing, singing, art that calls to the heart of the youth  and turn it into an outlet, a tool to set them on a healing journey.

5. What have been some of the major outcomes in your experience, of using the arts for health benefits?

I have developed mild OCD (kicks in during high stress situations) and hyper focus, they get worse during times of high stress, lately especially when I am song writing and so I turn to art to calm my heart and mind, I find art journaling has been very helpful, I do a lot of other writing, short stories for example, these methods calm my heart and mind and bring me back to the place I want to be, my music, songwriting and singing.

6. What do you think is needed to continue developing the connections between arts and health in Canada?

I really believe in the benefits of arts in our schools, our Government will do our youth so much long term good to get arts back into all schools, music programs, drama programs, all arts need to be in schools for the sake of the mental health of our children and youth.