With $1 million in funding, Qaggiavuut Arts Society dreams big

After years of making do with less, Nunavut's Qaggiavuut Arts Society has $1 million to spend — and big plans for arts in the territory.

‘We don’t own our stories unless we tell them ourselves,’ Qaggiavuut chair

Qaggiavuut accepts the Arctic Inspiration Prize in January. Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, the board's chair, said that a performing arts centre in Nunavut is 'not just our dream as isolated Arctic performing artists. It’s a dream owned by communities in Nunavut, and it’s owned nationally now.' (Arctic Inspiration Prize)

After years of making do with less, Nunavut's Qaggiavuut Arts Society has $1 million to spend — and big plans for arts in the territory. 

"Up until now we've only been able to exist on a project to project basis," says Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, the chair of Qaggiavuut's board of directors. ​"Now we can make some of those dreams take shape."

In January, Qaggiavuut was one of three groups awarded the $1.5 million Arctic Inspiration Prize, receiving $600,000 for projects to connect circumpolar artists by creating collaborations and teaching opportunities.

The group also received funds from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Government of Nunavut, bringing the total amount to $1 million over the next few years.

Last week, Qaggiavuut hosted a summit and artistic collaboration in Iqaluit, gathering 50 Inuit artists from across the country to attend workshops and discussion groups — as well as stage a performance of Kiviuq Returns, a multimedia production about the fight of good versus evil.

The summit was also an opportunity for the society to gather input on what Inuit artists want to accomplish with the new funds.

'Space, space, space'

​The society's name is a derivative of 'Qaggiq,' an Inuktitut word that means a giant iglu built for a performance. 'Qaggiavuut' translates to the call to enter the Qaggiq when it is ready. 

That name may prove prophetic, as the society's vice-chair said creating performing arts space was the main issue raised by artists in the summit. 

"Space, space, space," says Vinnie Karetak. "Not only centralized space for a giant performing arts centre, but space in their own home communities."

Vinnie Karetak and Rhoda Ungalaq wear their costumes for 'Kiviuq Returns,' a multi-media performance about the fight of good versus evil. . (submitted by Vinnie Karetak)

However, creating physical space may not be within the funding's purview. Williamson Bathory says that the funding "isn't for bricks and mortar.

"That's fine," she added, "because you can't have physical spaces without the programming to go inside them."

Though a major performing arts centre remains in the society's longer-term plans, Williamson Bathory says that the group is focused on developing programming for the territory. That, in turn, "gives us leverage to build the actual... centre," she said. 

The group is also working on doing a feasibility study on the potential centre, focused on the needs of Arctic artists and possible economic benefits. 

Post-secondary performing arts program

One of Qaggiavuut's main goals is to help artists across the Arctic find ways to share their skills with others in their community, particularly children and youth.

"There's an awful lot of artistic people in the Arctic pushed into mining industry or construction work sitting behind the wheel thinking artistic things," said Williamson Bathory. "Not every one of these artistic people have teaching skills."

To address this, Qaggiavuut hopes to work with local artists to improve their teaching skills and partner with community schools, giving them the space to offer workshops and classes.

However, Williamson Bathory has grander plans for teaching arts in Nunavut: a full-fledged university program.

"Wouldn't it be amazing to have a certificate, diploma, a bachelor's program in Arctic performing arts?" she said.

The group is hoping to develop a program that would not only focus on performance, but also technical aspects of the arts such as camera work and lighting, as well as business skills. According to Karetak, Qaggiavuut is in communication with groups like The National Theatre School, who could serve as potential partners.

'We don't own our own stories unless we tell them ourselves'

Despite having more cash that usual in their coffers, Qaggiavuut is, at its core, about fostering and promoting the arts in the territory — something that Karetak says plays an important role in addressing social issues such as language preservation and healing. 

"For us the arts have been very underutilized for such a long time," says Karetak.

"It's not just art for art's sake, it's also that arts have so much healing power," said Williamson Bathory, adding that arts can provide an avenue to deal with the legacy of colonialism in Nunavut.

"We don't own our own stories unless we tell them ourselves," she said, quoting a line from a poem she wrote.

Williamson Bathory also cited language preservation as a potential avenue for arts to engage with young Nunavut residents. 

"Linguistic preservation here in Nunavut at the government level is mechanical," she said. "It's all about translation. That's not exciting for young people. 

"What's exciting is having that bubbly feeling in their chest when they see something or hear something in that language that makes them want to emulate it."


Sima Sahar Zerehi is a reporter with CBC North. She started her career in journalism with the ethnic press working for a Canadian-based Farsi language newspaper. Her CBC journey began as a regular commentator with CBC radio's Metro Morning. Since then she's worked with CBC in Montreal, Toronto and now Iqaluit.