Arctic Rose: Susan Aglukark Shares The Stories and Songs That Made A Career
“This is my life. Who gets to do this and call this your career? I know I have been so fortunate,” Susan Aglukark exclaims, reflecting on the opportunity and responsibility of sharing stories and music that inspire Indigenous youth. She achieved mainstream fame with the release of the song O Siem, but there is so much more to her story.
“How fortunate are we that we're that generation who could do this heavy lifting and this work so that the next generation has less to do in that area?”
An Inuk, born in Fort Churchill and raised in Arviat, she had been living in Rankin Inlet in the 90s when she was offered a job with Indian Affairs in Ottawa as a Core Communications Coordinator. She worked with the Inuit division and did talks in the local schools about Inuit issues. She integrated into her presentations a poem she wrote in high school, when she was far from her people and the things she knew.
If she could give advice to her younger self, Aglukark would say, “Don't waste so much energy on fear. It's there. We all have it. But I feel like I wasted so much time and energy letting fear divert me from things.” Students in her area had to leave home to finish high school at grade 10 and the story she told about her experience walking in two worlds turned into a small documentary, a song and a music video as part of a government project. She left government to join ITC, met a CBC producer and ended up creating a cassette tape called Dreams For You with six songs in Inuktitut and one in English.
Aglukark later released This Child which had hit songs. ”It was never the pursuit of celebrity or a public life, it was just realizing this could be your life, and you could get well, you could heal. That became the real path,” she explains, looking back on her music career. She learned there was a lot more to being a singer and songwriter than just writing and she’s eager to share her experiences with youth.
“We really have to tell both sides of our stories for young people, especially the young, Indigenous people who want to pursue this as a career to encourage it, but also to show them you're going to have hurdles, there's going to be hiccups along the way, but we can overcome them. If you stumble on something that is very important to you, you will find a way to learn to fight for it, you will find a way to get better and you can because there is proof that it has been done,” she explains.
One of the challenges Aglukark faced was a shift in radio programming where her first album had fit in the new country umbrella, but her next album had nowhere her music could be enjoyed. She left her label, went independent in 2004 and just released her tenth album in partnership with her husband and business partner.
While she loves singing and songwriting, she had to find other ways to make a living, like public speaking and writing. “I started writing a theory called the post colonization syndrome theory all around that fear, that emotional fear, the more I understood the thing that was keeping me from truly engaging in my life, the more I wanted to share that,” she shares. That work is what she does under the Arctic Rose Foundation.
She describes it as “the recovery of dignity, and hope for children and youth that if we can reconnect these parts inside of them, I really believe if we could do it, if you could do it, if I could do it, and we figure out how to stay in our careers and our professional lives, we have a duty to share how we did this with the next generation so that they have something to work with.” The foundation works with other organizations to collaborate instead of compete for resources.
Her advice for Inuit youth considering moving away for work or school is inspiring. “I would encourage them to pursue it boldly and fearlessly. Sometimes you really want to do that, you have all this energy and then you don't see those steps moving forward, nothing is changing in your life. But something is changing. Don't focus so hard on the outcome. Things fall into place in the time that they need to. Don't be so hard on yourself. Just trust that thing you're feeling, trust the butterflies in your stomach. It will never work out in the timeline that you intended. Just trust your dream, trust that thing you want to do and just keep at it, it will fall into place,” she reassures.
Aglukark had no formal training, but took singing lessons, worked with a movement coach, and continues to improve her craft through writing and painting lessons and time with other writers. “To keep learning and to not go stagnant in my mind, I do things to make sure I'm constantly getting better. I sing, write and create every day, so it doesn't start to go away. When you recognize something you need to explore, you figure out how to get better and do that for a while. That's been my school,” she elaborates.
“Do what makes you feel good. Do what feeds your soul. But take the breaks when you need them.”
To take care of her mental health, she is careful not to overwork herself and engages in expressive art and writing. She trains her mind to know breaks are coming. She found institutionalization left her struggling to learn how to dream but she draws inspiration from people doing work that means something to them.
“We are so fortunate that we're living in these times as Indigenous artists that we can keep living this life but as we get better we have this platform to share the things that we're learning with that next generation,” she reflects. With another album, The Crossing, recently released and community programming to implement with the lifting of restrictions, Aglukark has a lot on the go. Making music as an artist and working to build community emotional health through her work with the Arctic Rose Foundation, she’s creating an impact as memorable as O Siem and sharing her joy in a way that makes it impossible not to sing along.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.