Aglukark keynote speaker at child witness conference

Award-winning singer Susan Aglukark delivered the keynote address at a special conference at Quetico Centre on Monday, combining her gift of song with some powerful messages regarding pain and abuse.
The Child Witness Conference, hosted jointly by the Atikokan Crisis Centre and Family Services Thunder Bay, opened Monday and wrapped up today.
Its purpose was to inform and train representatives from women’s and children’s agencies across the northwest in a program to help children who have witnessed domestic violence.
ACC executive director Donna Kroocmo said Aglukark was a natural choice as the keynote speaker because she herself is a survivor of violence—and writes about her experiences in her music.
Aglukark was born in Churchill, Man. but was raised in Arviat, on the northwest shore of Hudson Bay in what is now Nunavut. She was one of seven children and her father was a Pentecostal preacher.
Aglukark was sexually abused by a family friend at the age of nine. Several years later, after she learned he had done the same to other girls, she helped convict him in court with her testimony.
“Still Running,” the first song she performed during her talk Monday, is about the trauma of sexual abuse.
“I had to run away in order to face the demons I was forced to deal with,” Aglukark said, explaining her decision to leave Arviat when her abuser returned from prison after serving only 18 months.
“When you pull yourself out, you give yourself more of a fighting chance,” she stressed.
A singing career came along almost by accident for Aglukark. After working in Ottawa as a translator for Indian and Northern Affairs, she returned to the north to work for the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada and began performing locally.
She attracted the attention of the CBC, which recorded nine of her songs: eight in Inuktitut and one in English.
“It started off as a fun project,” she admitted. “I never expected for this to grow into what it’s grown into.”
In 1993, she toured the north with what became her “Arctic Rose” album. From there, she was invited to Toronto to negotiate a contract with EMI.
In 1994, Aglukark won two Juno Awards—Best New Solo Artist and Best Aboriginal Canadian Recording—as well as the Canadian Country Music Association’s Vista Rising Star Award and the first-ever Aboriginal Achievement Award in Arts and Entertainment.
Despite her success, Aglukark said she was haunted by her demons as she worked on subsequent albums. “I was constantly editing myself, constantly second-guessing what I wrote,” she recalled.
In March, 1995, her song “O Siem” made it to number one on the Canadian charts.
“‘Great,’” I said. ‘What are the charts?’” Aglukark said when her manager told her the news. “At that point, I still really hadn’t committed to myself as an artist. I was still having fun with it.
“I realized then I was at a point of no return,” she added.
“O Siem” remains her favourite song.
While touring across Canada, Aglukark had the opportunity to visit other aboriginal communities—and what she saw shocked her.
“I came home from the tour and I told my husband, ‘I can’t do it. There’s too much hurt out there,’” she said.
The pressure to produce another successful album also was strong.
“I hit rock bottom in 1998,” she admitted. “I couldn’t write. I couldn’t move forward. I didn’t know how to get angry. I didn’t know how to stand up for myself.”
It was when she thought about her son, Cameron, and the next generation of children, that she was able to go on. “I realized it’s not about me,” she said.
Aglukark also faced difficulties regarding her image as a performer, and left the record label two years ago because of it. “I just couldn’t be Britney Spears. I couldn’t try. Didn’t want to,” she laughed.
Aglukark went on to produce “Big Feeling” in 2003, and will release another album later this year.
“I’ve sort of come full circle,” she told conference delegates. “I’m at a place now where I am happy. I don’t want to change anything.”
In addition to her recording career, Aglukark dedicates some of her time to motivational speaking on issues relating to aboriginal youth.
“A lot of the struggles, especially for native women, is we have this idea of religion. Girls have to be a certain way all the time,” she said. “It’s like lying all the time.”
In the last few years, Aglukark has developed a self-esteem workshop for aboriginal youth. She also hopes her public speaking helps educate people about aboriginal issues.
“I come here and I share and I listen and I learn, and I hope those who listen learn this is the mind of an aboriginal person,” she said.
Though she now lives in Oakville, Ont., Aglukark still tries to get home to Nunavut as often as possible. “Even if I don’t physically go back there, that’s where my heart is,” she said.
During her talk Monday, the Inuk singer also performed “Suffer in Silence,” “Crystal House,” “Stand Up,” and “Shamia.”
Over the course of her career, Aglukark has performed for Queen Elizabeth II, prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Brian Mulroney, Nelson Mandela, former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, and French President Jacques Chirac.
Aglukark was named an Officer of the Order of Canada last year.