Published on April 12th, 2014 | by Lorraine Leslie0
Susan Aglukark – Between Two Worlds
When selecting a dynamic women to feature in the spring issue of Women with Vision Magazine it was important that she be a woman who had life experience, a comfort in sharing her personal challenges and be open to sharing her journey of self discovery.
Susan Aglukark’s name came to me via an email…a call was made and within fifteen minutes I was speaking with Susan personally. We met a month later for an interview and this is the life story of a crusader for women, an individual who has opened her heart so that the world can be a better place…
“I am one of six siblings, born in Fort Churchill Manitoba in 1967. I was right in the middle. Looking back, my parents David and Dorothy Aglukark traveled around a lot when I was small. My father was a Preacher so by the time I was five years we lived in Whale Cove – Rankin Inlet and Arviat eventually settling in the village called Arviat – (an Inuit hamlet located on the western shore of Hudson Bay in the Kivalliq Region of Nunavut, Canada. Arviat is derived from the Inuktitut word arviq meaning “Bowhead Whale”) and it happened to be my mother’s home town. Missionaries have been part of our culture since colonization and there has always been a large influence with this religion to be part of our heritage in the north. Both my parents were very active with the church. My Dad was an Anglican and my Mom was brought up Catholic eventually both becoming Pentecostal and are both ordained ministers. My father was also a politician and was involved in the negotiation for a time for Nunavut, (Nunavut officially became a territory in 1999)”, shared Susan.
“Like in many small villages, all the children played together…it wasn’t unusual for me to be playing with my cousins. We loved camping. We’d be gone from early spring, when it was time to fish for char and trout, and hunt together for geese until fall when we would hunt for caribou and whale. I did this camping until I was about fifteen years old. During this time in my life I loved to write in my journal every day, especially poetry.”
“I recall my favourite teacher in kindergarten was Carol Hammond. I can’t really say I had a favourite teacher past primary school…
At thirteen I was sent to Frobisher Bay in Iqaluit the Capitol of Nunavut to complete grade ten. Due to the pressure of being away from my family I didn’t finish the year. In 1983 I was sent to the private school in Regina.”
“Students would leave their villages and communities and stay at a residential school from August to December and then return after the holidays again to complete the year from January to the end of May.
In 1982 dropping out of high school was a hard choice before finishing grade ten. I was homesick due to being so far away from home; I was only fifteen. For different reasons I didn’t go back to finish that year. My parents arranged with Pastor Straza for me to finish grade ten at a private school called Maranatha Christian Academy in Regina, Saskatchewan, I was at that school for one year after which I switched high schools to Yellowknife and graduated from grade 12 there.
“In 1986, a member of parliament who was a friend of my dad’s offered me a unique opportunity to move to Ottawa to work at his office and to house-sit for three months, I was given a once in a lifetime chance to see what it would be like to live in a big city.”
The Canadian Government was, and still is the biggest employer in Nunavut. “I went on to continue my studies and graduate with my grade twelve diploma in 1987 before taking a job with the Municipal Government at age nineteen.
After living and working in Arviat during that time Susan decided to take a two year training position with the territorial government back in Rankin Inlet to be a Lands Officer in the Kewatin Region. Like many other young women she was looking forward to being a wife, mother and raising a family someday but this new job was going to be the start of a new journey.
By age twenty Susan was ready to step out on her own. She was on the path like most people who lived in the North – get a good government job, get married, raise a family – but Susan was full of curiosity…what was out there? “I had wanted to be a missionary pilot when I was fourteen. I was always an ‘out there kind of person’ so I was ready for whatever career opportunities were available for a young woman in 1990?”
“I was living in Rankin Inlet when I learned that the person who had abused me as a child had been still active. I was approached by a mother of another victim to help charge him – it turned out that my evidence was the most credible. Even though he was convicted, it took longer to get the conviction than the time he got which was only one third of the time.
Once he got out, “I couldn’t stay in Rankin Inlet anymore, so in 1991 I was offered a one year contract position in Ottawa with a small division of Indian and Northern Affairs – it was my saving grace – a one year contract that turned out for me, being in the right place at the right time. Part of the job was giving presentations in Ottawa high schools about my heritage – Indian Culture. I had always written everything in my journal since I was eleven years old. At age fifteen, in high school I had written a poem called Searching, in my native Inuktitut language about living between two worlds to get a high school diploma…this became part of the Ottawa presentations. There were three of us working in this division, myself, a manager and a supervisor.”
“To this day I don’t know which one of the other two actually started the dialogue about doing a documentary from this poem but it became a music video. I wish I did remember how the conversation came about…to take the poem and begin a documentary and next thing it’s a music video…which ended up on MuchMusic©. I had some singing experience as a preacher’s kid but that was the extent of it. I would sing with the youth group on the occasional Friday night but there was really nothing at all that placed me in the environment of being an artist – in my heart I knew I was but as a child, like many, I never had the opportunity to nurture the dream. So here I was, doing my new government job, doing a documentary that became a music video and that ended up on MuchMusic©, and that’s how everything changed. It was a new beginning. It was really being in the right place at the right time in late 1991 early 1992.”
“Between my boss David Webster and the gentleman who wrote the music from my poem, Larry Crosley, to working with documentary videographer Dennis Beauchamp – the four of us put the video together. That year I was featured on MuchMusic© by Denise Donlon who was the Music Director at the time. That same year the videographer Dennis Beauchamp won the Cinematography Award which helped raise my profile– and I was still an unknown artist”, smiled Susan.
Shortly after the video came out I was approached by CBC Northern Services. They asked me to submit some music for them to listen to and to use as part of their annual Northern Artist compilation. I was thrilled to be asked. Every year they put together a vinyl LP of northern artists and in 1991 they chose me to submit some for the project.”
“Although I grew up in a very musical family our access was limited to church music so we had hymnals and a couple of acoustic guitars. And there was a local radio station that played old, old country music – Hank Snow and Johnny Cash and Bluegrass – and that was the extent of my musical background. There was of course the traditional music of the Inuit such as the Qilaut, drumming and throat singing but I had not had access or much exposure to that music.
“I remember saying to the people at CBC…I am not a singer or a songwriter. I have some short poetry, I play a couple of chords on the guitar; let me record a couple for you, which I did. I recorded eight songs for them and all eight were selected.”
“This was my first project – Dreams for You which was available only on cassette.
Through this I met a producer by the name of Randall Prescott who approached me to write with him. Working as a linguist at the time with the Federal Government’s Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada in Ottawa and studying at night to become a pilot, it was during this time that I began writing and recording my first album Arctic Rose (songs of depth and humanity related to depression and suicide).”
“I still wasn’t convinced that there was a viable career for me as an artist.
Really, that project was recovery for myself from the abuse – the anger and resentment; putting myself on a healing path. I had an outlet through the writing. It was 1992/93, I had switched day jobs and was with a different organization and on a journey of validation from the abuse. Subconsciously I was on course to get my feelings out and in return the universe gave me a gift of the unknown…which I now share in my music.”
Things were getting very busy with the release of the Arctic Rose album and I realized I needed help and that person needed to be someone who had as much experience in the North as I did…“In late 1993 I had a huge decision to make with regards to EMI…then the record deal was signed in 1994.
The choice was between me getting my pilot license or singing and songwriting. I realized I could get my pilots license any time but a record deal was a once in a lifetime opportunity.” The time between 1994 and 1996 was a huge learning curve for Susan. Between 1996 and 1998 Susan had another challenge… to truly engage the artist she had to learn how to perform on stage, write more and find out what direction her artistic career was moving in. “Everything that could go wrong was – there was no right answer”.
Things happened for a reason that she had to take care of – Susan was going through post partum depression after the birth of her son, managers changed, agencies changed, her follow-up album was not charting, what does one do? Between 1998 and 2007 Susan faced another decision, leave EMI and continue as an independent artist? She decided to continue and began working on her 6th album,…best decision ever!”
In 2008 after writing, recording, promoting and touring Blood Red Earth, (Susan was an independent artist at this point) and after rebuilding her home (which had burned down in the summer of 2007) Susan was appointed as a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the University of Alberta. She worked between two worlds; Toronto and Edmonton – academia and artist, for three years doing research and creating programs that addressed the school drop-out issue among aboriginal students at all grade levels. Between work, and fulfilling special engagements, she found herself with very little time to devote to her art and music.
By June of 2011, Susan had a significant event happen that was going to change her life; the University offered her an extension. “Most artists will tell you, the lure of the steady income is a powerful thing. The university position was getting in the way of my creative side”, said Susan.
“I told my husband, I need the job to support my “habit”, art (music) is my habit. But it wasn’t working. I was dying as an artist. It was driving me crazy. I wish I could do both, but couldn’t.”
Susan declined the offer and returned full time to her passion with a renewed confidence.
Walking in the tension between two worlds; academic and social justice arenas and that of being an artist and musician has been a defining note in her remarkable career so far.
After working one year with the Federal Government she took a job with the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada and at the same time releasing and touring with her first album – the album that led to her signing a deal with EMI Music Canada.
A petite, fine boned woman with an angelic voice who wrote and performed songs in both English and Inuktitut suddenly found herself in the limelight. Susan’s music is a timeless kind of pop music with lyrics that have dealt with subject matter of real depth and humanity. It was no wonder it was embraced in Canada and internationally.
Susan has a rare and exotic presence in the mainstream music world, an Inuk woman, a modern woman, a strong woman with something important to say which is sometimes very rare in the entertainment industry. Susan embodies a pure, graceful and honest approach to her music. Her inner strength and dedication – 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 her struggles as a survivor of sexual abuse, captured the public imagination and won her an audience beyond that of most pop artists.
Over the next few years she released a series of CDs, a total of 8 studio albums, and became an in-demand speaker. The accolades and awards began to pile up.
Susan shares. “For any young artist, this would be a lot to handle. But for a young woman who was raised in the north, it was a whirlwind. What people don’t realize, not that they have to, is the beauty of what we Inuit still carry is a certain innocence. Sometimes that innocence borders on too much naiveté and that can be a detriment. I had a lot of learning and catching up to do, as an artist, as an entertainer and a performer on stage, and I was learning it all while headlining.”
Susan’s songs are very strong visually and story wise. “The stories are of people back home in Nunavut and represent traditional and non-traditional Inuit – people extending back to the Viking era and a look at their history from three major turning points, from the past to the present.
“I’ve lived in Ontario for 20 years and I still feel the pull of home every day. No matter where I’ll end up, my heart will always feel the Arctic before I feel anything or anyplace else. I’m not attached to the material things – or to a certain status. I still believe in the stories and the history. We live in an incredible time and I am in a great position to share it. I have this great career where I can share it and that’s a choice I’ve made at this stage and it has affected my performance on stage and as a woman in the 21st century.”
Susan Aglukark’s musical success is even more interesting when you realize she didn’t start her career until she was twenty four years of age. Her first and most successful single is O Siem which reached No. 1 on the Canadian country and adult contemporary charts in 1995.
This Child is the second album released in 1995. The album was Susan Aglukark’s commercial breakthrough in Canada, spawning chart hits with O Siem and Hina Na Ho (Celebration), and making Aglukark the first Inuk performer ever to have a Top 40 hit. This album was also released in Japan on September 6, 1995
In addition to five albums released by EMI between 1994 and 2004, Aglukark Entertainment has released, Blood Red Earth, (2007) (songs of insight of those suffering from depressions and suicide). Susan is one of Canada’s most unique and most honored artists. After all, how many artists can capture a broad audience singing in both English and the language of the Inuit – Inuktitut.
White Sahara, (2011) features fifteen songs. Even though the songs represent a span of a decade of writing and performing (and two new songs), the CD is a cohesive work. This speaks to the clarity and artistic vision that has been with Susan since she emerged as an independent artist performing for Inuit communities in the North in the early 90’s.
Today, Susan’s husband is her business manager. Her most recent CD, produced by Chad Irschick was released just before the 2013 holiday season. It is an angelic collection of Christmas songs with her own unique touch called Dreaming of Home. It was an honour to spend time with Susan and learn of her amazing heritage and life journey. I’m grateful she chose to share her story with me… With sincere gratitude Susan…you are among many amazing Women with Vision!
FOOTNOTE: Susan Aglukark has an honorary DFA from the University of Lethbridge, and in 2005 she was named as an Officer of the Order of Canada. She has performed for HRH Queen Elizabeth, Nelson Mandela and a number of Canadian Prime Ministers and dignitaries, honorary law degrees from the University of Alberta and University of Calgary. Susan has won three Juno Awards; the first-ever Aboriginal Achievement Award in Arts and Entertainment along with the Canadian Country Music Association’s Vista Rising Star Award.
copyright Lorraine Leslie – Women with Vision Magazine September, 2014