'Writing is truly my healing': Susan Aglukark's 25 years in the arts

Susan Aglukark, the first Inuk recipient of the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award, says it took her a long time to find herself, but her music career helped her get there.
Susan Aglukark performs at the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards on Friday, Nov. 24, 2006 in Toronto. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Singer-songwriter Susan Aglukark, the first Inuk recipient of the Governor General's Performing Arts Award, says it took her a long time to realize who she was — but her music career helped her get there. 

"At some point I had lost myself," Aglukark said. "On the stage I had no clue who I was. I was singing O Siem in cowboy boots."

Earlier this month, the 49-year-old received the country's highest honour in the performing arts after more than 25 years of work.

Susan Aglukark, left, receives the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards 2016 Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award for popular music from Deputy Governor General and Chief Justice of Canada Beverley McLachlin. (Fred Chartrand/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

"It was a truly humbling moment," said Aglukark. "This one is one that I accepted from my heart."

Aglukark's eight albums include a blend of country, world and pop music sung in both English and Inuktitut.

She's Canada's first Juno Award-winning Inuk singer-songwriter. 

And these days, she's working on a new album that harks back to her Inuit roots. It features throat singing by Rankin Inlet's Kathleen Ivaluarjuk Merritt, a young, up-and-coming artist. 

'A life... outside of trauma'

Aglukark said it's important young people interested in pursuing a career in the arts realise the work doesn't translate into wealth, but it can mean tremendous professional satisfaction.

"We love what we do."

And she said despite her struggles — and the struggles of many other Indigenous people — most have healed enough to be able to undertake this work.

"We're living in times where the collective Indigenous creative artistic community is going to make a huge contribution in what clearly is and needs to be a massive healing program for the many victims of the residential school era and colonization," said Aglukark.

"We're making a life for ourselves outside of the trauma."

'Everybody knew, everybody heard'

Aglukark said she was first abused by a family friend in Rankin Inlet when she was only eight years old. She said it was hard to escape the trauma.

"In a small town like Rankin Inlet, everybody knew, everybody heard," said Aglukark.

Years later, Aglukark moved to Ottawa. At the time, she felt she could "no longer be myself" in Rankin Inlet and other communities in Nunavut didn't have any jobs for her. 

That move to Ottawa is when her music career began. 

"Writing is truly my healing," says Aglukark. (Submitted by Nadya Kwandibens)

Aglukark's said from the beginning, writing was therapeutic for her. Even her first album Dreams for You and her first music video for the song Searching, were all based on poetry she wrote about belonging as a teenager.  

"Writing is truly my healing," said Aglukark. "It's the catharsis. It's the real deep places that it brings me to."

In 1993, EMI Music Canada signed Aglukark to a worldwide distribution contract, which launched her career as a professional musician.

But Aglukark said she struggled with the decision to sign the record deal.

"I was coasting, I was just tagging along," she said. "I didn't know how to be completely a part of it."

A 'healed enough person'

It wasn't long after her career took off that Aglukark found herself at a fork in the road. She was suffering from postpartum depression and didn't know if she should continue to pursue her job in the spotlight or to focus on healing. 

She says it was a time of great struggle and learning.

"It was a very dark time, a very, very dark time... which was very scary," Aglukark said. "That means going into the dark closet and acknowledging all the dark places and healing them a little bit at a time."

But that's what she did. 

From left, singer Elisapee Isaac, Susan Aglukark, actor Tom Jackson, commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Marie Wilson, and singer Leela Gilday. (George Pimentel/Getty Images)

Aglukark said now when she goes on stage, she wants people to see her as a "healed enough person."

"I hope that what people see is a person who has obtained the goal she's set for herself 24 years ago, which is 'fall in love with the person who you are.'"

About the Author

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.