Over the course of her career, three-time Juno award winning singer-songwriter Susan Aglukark has pushed the boundaries of contemporary pop, country, and traditional Inuit folk music, and at age 50, she’s not done yet.
The first Inuk artist to win a Juno and a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for lifetime artistic achievement, she has also launched a new charity and is gearing up for the release of a new album.
She recently led P&I on a reflection of her career and her plans for the future.
Aglukark says she felt her career started to take off in the early 1990s. At the time she was working in Ottawa as a translator for the federal government at the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs—now Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.
After a series of “little happenstances,” she began to think more seriously about pursuing singing and songwriting as a career.
While still working at Indian Affairs, Aglukark was contacted by a CBC North producer and was asked to submit a track for a compilation album of Arctic artists.
“It was an opportunity and, in a kind of roundabout way, it was a dream come true,” she says.
It was in the same year, with the help of CBC Radio, she independently released her first album, Dreams for you, in 1990.
Then, in 1992, backed by the EMI recording label, she released her second album Arctic Rose. The video for the song Searching won for best cinematography at the MuchMusic video Awards.
“I think as a child my desire was to be an artist,” Aglukark says.
As a young indigenous woman growing up in the Northwest Territories, she explained that she was taught a lot of creative and artistic skills—including sewing, beading, and other traditional arts—but being a musician was never something she considered pursuing as a dream.
Aglukark tells P&I that as the daughter of a preacher there was an “expectation and technically requirement that you participate in church,”—which included singing in the church’s choir and learning to play instruments.
It was following the release of her 1995 11-track album, This Child, when she really felt that this could be an actual career and not just a hobby.
She explains to P&I that she “was more or less doing day jobs during the writing and recording” of Arctic Rose, and that she thought of it as an experience she could cross off her bucket list.
“This Child, on the other hand, was a whole other level,” she says. It was during this period that Aglukark felt she was “falling in love with the possibility of being a legitimate songwriter” and the challenges that go with it. It went on to sell more than 300,000 copies, and included the hit song O Siem.
It was also in 1995 when she became the first Inuk singer-songwriter to win a Juno, for her earlier work, Arctic Rose.
Over the span of her career, Aglukark has performed in front of Queen Elizabeth II, former prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Brian Mulroney, former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, and many others.
However, she says that as a preacher’s kid it was her 1998 performance in front of American Christian evangelist Billy Graham in Ottawa that stands out the most to her.
“It was definitely a real highlight for me” she tells P&I.
Aglukark then adds that the next-most memorable was Nelson Mandela.
“you really can’t top those two experiences.”
“The third Juno I won—I was ready to win it,” Aglukark tells P&I on her win for Aboriginal Album of the year in 2004 for her 2003 album Big Feeling. She explains, “I was at a point where I loved the nomination, because I felt as an artist I had finally reached that point where I had worked really hard for it.”
This was an evolution for her, as for her previous two Juno wins in 1995, she says she felt the other nominees were more deserving of it and had, in her view, “worked harder.”
She’s received a number of other accolades and awards over her 25-year career, including being appointed as an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2004.
In 2016, Aglukark became the first Inuk person to receive the Governor General’s Lifetime Artistic Achievement award. “When you have peers selecting you…those awards mean that much more to you,” she muses. After winning the highest honour for performing arts in Canada, Aglukark says she’s “kind of peaked” and asked herself “now what?”
“Now we just keep getting better and…just enjoy what you’re doing,” she says.
Despite these honours, Aglukark confesses that as “an accidental artist” she’ll always be a little in over her head, but that keeps her on her feet creatively and she has to continue to push forward and keep learning.
She adds, “when I started 25 years ago, aside from the fact that I met the kind of goals that I set for myself to get better, there’s always room to get better.”
Aglukark, who currently lives in Oakville, Ont., recently launched her charity—the Arctic Rose Foundation—and has hired her first Inuk student intern.
The foundation’s mandate is to create a safe emotional, physical and cultural art therapy space. She explains the foundation’s bigger picture is to get young people into “safe enough situations” where they’re comfortable and able to pursue their creative goals.
This year will also see the release of a new album. “It’s a new album where we’re collaborating with young Inuit artists and creating a [cultural] connections piece,” she says. The concept album will tell the story of the Inuit crossing the Bering Strait, Aglukark adds, “It’s really all about who we were.”