Indspire suspends award for Johnny Issaluk amid 'serious allegations'

An Inuk film star and international cultural representative of the Arctic is facing 'serious allegations.'

Inuk actor and Arctic ambassador was going to be recognized for his involvement in sports

Johnny Issaluk is an award-winning athlete, actor, as well as an Arctic ambassador and advocate for youth. (Vanessa Heins/Indspire)

Indspire has suspended an award recognizing Inuk film star and athlete Johnny Issaluk after "serious allegations" surfaced.

In an statement emailed to CBC News, a spokesperson for the Indspire organization said it learned yesterday afternoon of accusations against Issaluk, which it described as serious in nature.

For 27 years, the Indspire awards have honoured Indigenous professionals each year who demonstrate outstanding career achievements.

Issaluk may be best known for recent acting roles in AMC's The Terror and Indian Horse, but before getting into acting he was a successful Inuit games athlete, winning over 200 medals in regional and international events over the course of two decades.

He now spends his time coaching, and teaching the culture and history of the games.

The Indspire award was supposed to recognize his sports achievements, but the nomination is under review by the jury. 

In her social media posts Alethea Arnaquq-Baril says other women have told her that they also experienced inappropriate advances from Johnny Issaluk. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Wednesday night, Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril posted lengthy social media posts on Twitter and Facebook alleging Issaluk had "fondled" her bum without permission at a party. 

"It was unexpected and uninvited," she wrote.

Arnaquq-Baril is an award winning filmmaker best known for her 2016 documentary Angry Inuk. She also made a short film Inuit High Kick starring Issaluk, which played at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. 

She has declined a request for an interview at this time, but posted a statement on social media saying: "I want to give victims a bit of time to absorb what's happening and grieve and talk with each other. To find support they need from each other. Please don't struggle alone."

Filmmaker asked Indspire to retract award

In her posts, Arnaquq-Baril said she asked Indspire to retract the award. She also said she reached out to the Governor General of Canada's office to request a retraction of its Order Of Canada membership appointment for Issaluk, which was announced in late December.

Her words garnered support from Inuit leaders, including Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed who said he stood with and believed Arnaquq-Baril at Wednesday night's Arctic Inspiration Prize ceremony in Ottawa. 

In an interview later with CBC, Obed said he had not talked to Arnaquq-Baril before he made his comments.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed supported Arnaquq-Baril at Wednesday night's Arctic Inspiration Prize ceremony in Ottawa. (CBC News)

"She had made a public post and so I in turn wanted to support her publicly," Obed said. He described himself as a friend who had known Arnaquq-Baril for a long time.

"When Alethea Arnaquq-Baril posted on social media about her experience of sexual abuse I immediately thought 'how can I be an ally? How can I support this?'" he said.

When asked if he was aware of allegations against Issaluk before Arnaquq-Baril's posts, Obed said he did not want to speak specifically about that at the time.

"It's good that institutions are holding people accountable for a certain level of conduct, and if they do not live up to that conduct, [then] they do not deserve those particular honours that may be bestowed on them, or have been bestowed on them," he said.

"We need to be sure that those who receive awards, such as Indspire awards, are people that deserve them."

Arnaquq-Baril posts on Facebook and Twitter have received hundreds of shares and comments using the hashtag #metoo.

On social media, Arnaquq-Baril says other women have told her that they also experienced inappropriate advances from Issaluk.

None of the allegations against Issaluk have been proven in court. CBC has tried to call and text Issaluk, but was unable to get through to him.

Where to get help

If you or someone you know needs to talk, help is available.

Nunavut Kamatsiaqtut Help Line — 1-800-265-3333
Embrace Life Council
Kids Help Phone — 1-800-668-6868 or live chat counselling online

With files from Jackie McKay and Olivia Stefanovich