An award-winning Inuk singer-songwriter, Susan Aglukark credits art for fueling her healing journey and helping her to rewrite and reclaim her narrative. This prompted her to create an Indigenous-led arts program for youth in the north, an initiative honoured this year at the Juno Awards, which saw Susan awarded the 2022 Humanitarian Award.
This much-deserved honour recognizes an outstanding Canadian artist whose humanitarian contributions have positively enhanced the social fabric of Canada. Susan founded the Arctic Rose Foundation in 2012 to support Northern Inuit, First Nations, and Metis youth. She believes art plays an important role for Indigenous youth dealing with identity issues, and her organization offers arts-based programming that promotes emotional and mental wellness while connecting youth with their culture.
In an interview with CBC Radio’s Unreserved, Susan spoke about what this award means to her and why it means the most for this three-time Juno Award-winning singer-songwriter. From the interview:
CBC: You are a big winner Juno-wise; you’ve won three in your music career. How does this new award compare to those wins?
SA: Well, this one is very, very special. The early years of my career were really about me trying to figure out where I fit in. Not just in my music career or as an artist, just my life. I’d left home to leave. I hadn’t left home to pursue a public life, much less a celebrity life. I wasn’t an artist. I wasn’t a singer-songwriter. I’d never written songs. So those early awards were kind of like a head-scratcher. With this one I knew I was right where I belong.
Born in Arviat, Nunavut, Susan originally moved to Ontario in 1990 for a one-year contract at Indian Affairs. She didn’t always consider herself an artist, Susan told CBC, even after releasing her first album, Arctic Rose in 1995. This album earned her two Juno Awards and made her the first ever JUNO Award-winning Inuk singer-songwriter.
That same year, Susan released her second album This Child, which saw its first single “O Siem” become a Top 10 hit in Canada. Susan told CBC that at the time she was working through “emotional fear”, or Ilirasuk in Inuktitut, and it took her almost a decade for her to overcome that fear through expressive art forms, such as music and poetry. From the interview:
CBC: You had mentioned that it was healing for you to do this music. How did it help you with your healing and move through your life?
SA: [Back] then, I thought if I put it in writing, I’m going to be better, right? Well, actually, healing was good one day, back to square one the next day. It was really high energy and, “I’ve got this!” one day, and “I want to kill you” the next day.
In those early years, healing meant something is changing. And to me, it was something that was waking up that had gone stagnant, deep inside of me, and it was kind of, I want to say, hope. We move forward, because we have to, whether or not we still have that bit of hope in us, but something wants to keep living. Those were the early stages of what I now know; [it] was me recovering or healing myself from that lost sense of hope.
In 2018, Susan testified at a hearing of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls commission that she had been sexually assaulted as a young girl. While she named the man who assaulted her at the time, he was never prosecuted. This was why Susan was looking to leave her home and move to Ontario in 1990.
Susan hopes to empower youth through art the same way art empowered her to heal from her past. In an interview with Nunatsiaq News, she said:
What I learned in the early years was that I had, more than anything, an opportunity to start to heal whatever was holding me back. So, later on in my career and in my life, when I knew I was as healed as I was going to get … I wanted to share some of the things that allowed me to get there, that were my healing steps.
Through Arctic Rose Foundation, Susan offers a safe space for Indigenous youth to express themselves and provides them with access to Indigenous leaders, role models, and employment and mentorship opportunities to help them deal with the existing structural inequities and barriers that are faced in the North. The organizations is currently active in Rankin Inlet and Arctic Bay in Nunavut, but Susan is hopeful of expanding programming to reach all Northern Inuit, First Nations, and Metis youth.
Susan told CBC that her greatest wish for Indigenous youth is that they’re given the opportunity to meet their immense potential. “I was given an opportunity” she said. “I didn’t see beyond a week, beyond a month, beyond a year in those early years. But just to have that chance and then 30 years later, this is what happens. We have to invest in that.”
In accepting her award at the 2022 Juno Awards ceremony, Susan shared this powerful message about her own journey as well as that of her foundation, particularly when it comes to reconciliation:
My work as a songwriter is focused on correcting the narrative, finding my own story, and creating safe spaces in which to heal and explore reconciliation. And I like to think the Arctic Rose Foundation, in the work it does and the support it provides, plays its own small and positive role in that process.
Watch Susan’s full acceptance speech here:
Susan’s impressive list of accolades includes several honorary Doctorate degrees and receiving The Order of Canada in 2005 and the Governor General’s Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award in 2016. She has also performed in front of some of the world’s most influential people including Queen Elizabeth II, Jean Chrétien, Brian Mulroney, Nelson Mandela, Billy Graham, and The Countess of Wessex.
In her powerful keynotes, Susan shares her incredible professional and personal journey. Combining storytelling and original songs, she speaks about her life and how it has led her from growing up in small town Nunavut to becoming a household name across Canada. She relates stories of her culture and its continuing impact on her life in her new southern surroundings, and speaks of empowerment and the importance of self-respect and respecting others in leading a much healthier and happier life.