Setting The Stage
SUSAN AGLUKARK PERFORMS at Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto and the National Arts Centre in Ottawa to crowds of thousands. The acoustics in these rooms are fine-tuned. Views are unobstructed and the seats are comfortable. When she last came home to Nunavut, she performed in Rankin Inlet’s old rec hall.
“That’s mostly what you have across the North,” says the Juno Award-winning musician. And that’s a problem. Without a place to perform, she says, Canada and the world are missing out on Nunavut voices.
Aglukark grew up in Arviat with what she calls “the artist heart.” But she didn’t begin performing until she moved south for a government job. “I knew in my heart of hearts I was different. If somebody had asked, ‘So what do you think you want to be?’ I would have said, ‘I want to be a dancer.’ I loved music. I love what music does to me. I loved singing, I loved moving, I loved reacting to it—I loved the arts,” she says. But nobody ever asked her that question. “If we had the right facilities, which we desperately, desperately need in our Northern communities, we could develop the arts.”
It’s something Qaggiavuut is actively doing. The volunteer society has offered training and performing arts programs to more than 300 Inuit artists and 5,000 Nunavut children since it formed a decade ago, all while essentially homeless. Last summer, it launched a fundraising campaign to build a home—Qaggiq: Nunavut Performing Arts and Cultural Learning Centre. The organization has big dreams and concrete plans to back them up—including designs drawn up by Diamond Schmitt Architects, and a business plan with everything from capital cost projections down to rental rates and how much a coffee would go for at the café. Construction costs would range from $15 million for a basic theatre, to $60 million with all the bells and whistles. (The estimated price tags come in about 2.4 times more than what a similar facility in Toronto would cost, thanks to the higher price of everything in Iqaluit.)
But for now, Nunavut artists make do. When Qaggiavuut staged Kiviuq Returns, an ancient Inuit legend brought to life on major southern stages, they rehearsed mostly in a small house-turned-office in Iqaluit. “There wasn’t a lot of room to practice a full-sized play in there. It was very difficult to do,” says Christine Tootoo, one of the performers from Rankin Inlet. When the play was staged in Nunavut communities, it was most often done in school gymnasiums. “It was pretty difficult trying to space everything out properly—with all the little technical stuff that we had to think about, on top of singing and acting and movement.”
AGLUKARK ISN'T THE ONLY star of Canada’s arts scene on board with a Nunavut theatre. Gideon Arthurs, CEO of the National Theatre School of Canada; Adrienne Clarkson, former Governor General of Canada; Karen Kain, Artistic Director of the National Ballet of Canada and many more are part of the Friends of Qaggiavuut Advisory Committee, a group of arts heavyweights putting their institutional heft behind lobbying efforts for the design, building and programming of the centre. Three hundred Nunavut and Inuit artists have also signed a letter of support.
The name Qaggiq is an Inuit term for a large iglu where people come together to celebrate life and strengthen culture with story and song—and that’s just what Ellen Hamilton, Qaggiavuut’s executive director, wants the arts centre to be. “A big part of the performing arts is making sure we preserve and maintain this knowledge before it’s lost,” she says. “All of the research, all of the evidence, says youth and children need to be exposed to their own sense of belonging to a culture, to a space, to a community, to a society. And while it’s really important for all Canadians to hear the Inuit story, it’s even more vital for Inuit children and youth.”
It will also ensure kids in Nunavut have someone asking if they want to be in the arts. “Our chairperson Vinnie [Karetak] says, ‘No, not all Inuit want to work in a mine. And we don’t all want to work construction. Some of us want to be artists. Quite a lot of us, actually,'” says Hamilton.
The question is how to make the space economically viable. The proposed arts centre would include residences, modelled after the Banff Centre, to allow visiting artists and students from across the territory to stay, learn and share with each other. But those on-stage wouldn’t be the only people learning. Hamilton dreams of a centre where people could pick up technical skills in sound or lighting engineering, or through a culinary arts program run in the café, focused on Inuit food.
Tootoo says she can make a long list of benefits that would flow from a performing arts space in Nunavut. “The main one is people like me could do art full-time as a job and make a living off of it,” she says. In 2017, for example, Qaggiavuut estimates more than 25 Inuit performing artists doubled their income in the arts as a result of the support they got from the society. “It’s feasible. There’s a demand for Inuit artists. If we had the space to work, the funding to do it in our own territory, in our own home, amongst people we know, instead of having to go down south, we’d feel more of a connection to our home and would have access to people we need to have access to—like elders—to make our work happen.”
That’s something Aglukark has come up against her whole career. “I’ve never been able to do anything in the North and actually make a profit, as a singing, songwriting artist. Every time we’ve gone up North to perform, for me, it’s always been at a break-even,” she says. Part of that is the lack of resources, support and training—and part of that is just the reality of the distances between communities.
And if Aglukark still struggles to make it work in the North, for new artists, it can seem like an impossible dream. “It’s heartbreaking. It’s truly heartbreaking. It’s hard for them to say, ‘Okay, I can do this,’” she says. “The best analogy I can use is most local employees for the government make a better income than I ever have in my 25 years in this industry. A hit song does not a wealthy person make in this country. If we aren’t going to invest in Northern success stories, who are successful back home and staying home, we are losing a potential talent in the North.”
SO WHY HASN'T THE DREAM of a dedicated performing arts venue become a reality yet?
“Right now we just need Nunavut,” says Hamilton. Specifically, they’re waiting for the territorial government to release its own study on what kind of facility is needed. (Since 2016, the GN has given Qaggiavuut $200,000 in funding to run programs, but the arts centre is a seal of a different colour.) And that’s where things get sticky.
The government has done its own study and wants to create a steering committee to guide the next steps for a Nunavut cultural centre, says Bernie MacIsaac, assistant deputy minister of economic development. He added it’s “too early” to determine when a cultural centre could become a real thing. The government doesn’t really know what it wants out of the facility either. “This could include a multi-purpose, phased approach, implementing a variety of programs, including heritage collections exhibition, contemporary visual arts and craft exhibition, performing arts, and events/gatherings.”
But an art gallery or museum with a stage is the opposite of what Qaggiavuut wants—and that’s based on what their members have heard from officials with other Northern arts centres, like the Yukon Arts Centre in Whitehorse and the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre in Yellowknife, who have been down this multi-use road before.
NACC in Yellowknife shares space with a high school, while the Yukon Arts Centre was located next to the new Yukon College campus when it moved to Whitehorse in 1988. For Hamilton, both those compromises make sense. “We do want to partner and collaborate. What we don’t want to do is compromise on things that performing artists really need,” she says. “The theatre is actually the least important part. The most important part is the rehearsal creation space with the space to learn.”
If a multi-purpose facility was one building and included a museum or art gallery, it could fundamentally change how the space is used. Hamilton and her group envision a place that could be used 24/7—with everything from artist fellowships hosting creators from around the globe, to local teens coming in at night to play rock music. “It would always be used. This space is used day and night, weekends, anything,” she says. That can’t happen if the space is also hosting priceless art that needs security, or archival materials that need to be kept at certain constant temperatures—all of which raise operating costs, taking resources away from artists and communities.
“When we talked to other performing arts organizations they said don’t compromise on creation space, on the rehearsal space. We don’t want a white elephant and we don’t want a place that doesn’t meet the needs of artists,” Hamilton says. “What people don’t understand is the performing arts are already, by their nature, many disciplines. They’re not a single discipline.” They’re lighting and sound, recording, video broadcasting, stage management, directing, writing, set design, costume and makeup, along with music, drum dance, throat song, acting, production and arts management. “There’s already a kajillion disciplines within the performing arts, and if we don’t have one space that’s an umbrella for them, then some of those disciplines will get left out.”
Regardless of what the GN comes back with, Qaggiavuut is ready to move forward with its own centre. It would love to break ground next summer to mark Nunavut’s 20th birthday. Hamilton says they want to work with the GN, but not if it means sacrificing what performing artists need. The question, though, will be if the federal government, which would provide the bulk of funding, is willing to support the performing arts centre that Qaggiavuut wants to see built as well as a cultural centre proposed by the GN.
“We don’t want just a stage in the middle of a hotel or a stage in the middle of a museum. We want an actual arts creation space and teaching space,” says Hamilton.
For Aglukark, that could be lifesaving. “My art has healed me. How lucky am I?” she says.
Aglukark runs The Arctic Rose Foundation in Rankin Inlet, which uses the arts to promote healing in the North. “We get 20 to 25 kids every day in this arts after-school day program for an hour and a half. Sitting there listening to them talk, we realize that just having a conversation goes such a long way for these young people. A facility like what [Qaggiavuut] is imagining, that’s going to heal so many young people and begin the work we need to begin to heal the next generation and the next generation.”
It just has to get built.
Finding the money:
Qaggiavuut started a fundraising campaign to build the Qaggiq on July 1, 2017—Canada’s 150th birthday. It proposes to get the biggest chunk of funds (70 percent) from the federal department of Culture and Heritage. The rest would come from charitable foundations (10 percent), the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency (five percent), the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs (five percent), and private donations. If the Government of Nunavut were onboard, it would kick in five percent. If not, Qaggiavuut launched a corporate sponsorship campaign last month to fill that gap.
These numbers don’t come out of thin air: they’re based on how Qaggiavuut has already been funded. They might not yet have a hive, but they’ve been busy artistic bees, operating a thriving theatre company and a music program. Since 2016, Qaggiavuut has raised more than $1.9 million from various sources to support its programming, including government funding and donations.
A Qaggiq by any other name:
What would Qaggiavuut’s dream space, at $60 million, look like?
• 350-seat flexible theatre, with the ability to do live-filming, streaming and broadcasts
• Dormitories for around 30 artists or youth
• Rehearsal and teaching spaces
• Public atrium: interactive hub/visual arts gallery
• A café with a teaching kitchen
• Offices and storage space
• Green room
A pared down version, without the teaching kitchen or dorms, would cost roughly $30 million. A basic, black box theatre would run around $15 million.