Yukon visit – Arctic Arts Summit

June 27, 2022

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I would first like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional territory of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation and the Ta’an Kwäch’än Council.

My husband, Whit, and I are delighted to be here at the opening of the Arctic Arts Summit. Canada is proud to host this important gathering of northern artists from across the Arctic region.

Thank you for inviting me here for this celebration of the arts.

Let me tell you a story.

It’s a story of a little girl, growing up in Nunavik. She learns to hunt and fish. She learns where to gather food. Every fall, she enjoys picking blueberries. She speaks her language, Inuktitut, and knows the traditions of Inuit, taught by her mother and grandmother and other members of her community. She’s immersed in that world, body, mind and soul.

But, there is another world, beyond her community.

Her father, a man from the south and non-Indigenous, has come to love her world, speaks the language, and raises his children completely at home in the North. And he also gives them a gift: knowledge of another place, of a different culture and way of thinking. 

That little girl was me, and I grew up in two worlds. I navigated those worlds, building bridges between them, always with the goal of making lives better for Inuit, and protecting Inuit rights, cultures and language.

I learned how important it is to open yourself up to new ideas and new people, and to see the world through a different lens. And that it’s possible to do that without giving up who you are.

I tell you this story because I want you to know how meaningful these northern visits are to me, to be here again in such familiar company.

And I tell you this because you, artists and supporters of the arts, are like that little girl.  You build bridges, are open to new ideas, have shared who you are with others and have held on to your identity.

Artists are reflective of culture. You shine a light on issues that impact our communities every day. You show us the wonderful, the mythical, the mundane. The challenges and the beauty of life.

You communicate important truths to a wide audience, no matter what country you’re from. You’re connecting us through your art; bridging matters of time, language, culture and borders.

It’s wonderful to see representatives from different nations, and different peoples, here with us today. I’m particularly heartened to see many Indigenous communities represented here, from Canada and from around the circumpolar region. Your presence will encourage circumpolar collaboration, both in the arts and beyond. Collaboration between countries is vital as we work through some of the most pressing issues facing our countries, including pandemic recovery, sovereignty and climate change. The arts can help bring us closer, to spark conversation and to realize our potential as partners.

No matter our differences, we’re united in our certainty that art is vital for our future.

I’ve seen this first-hand.

As governor general, I’ve been honoured to see examples of northern and Indigenous art during the last year.

Let me share with you some of what I’ve seen.

At the National Arts Centre, in Ottawa, I shared the stage with students from Nunavut Sivuniksavut and the Inuuqatigiit Centre. They sang our national anthem in English, French and Inuktitut to an audience at the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards.

In Toronto, I attended the JUNOs to present the 2022 Humanitarian Award to Susan Aglukark. She’s the first Inuk to win a JUNO award and a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for lifetime artistic achievement. Throughout her career, she has helped to create safe spaces for Indigenous youth to express themselves freely and to immerse themselves in their culture through her Arctic Rose Foundation.

I was at the National Gallery of Canada when Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory won the 2021 Sobey Art Award for Contemporary Art. An Inuk artist living in Iqaluit, Laakkuluk creates art that reflects her community. Like many of you, she’s passionate about her home, about the north.

In Germany last year, Deantha Edmunds, Canada's first Inuk classical singer, performed in front of an international audience at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

In Nunavik, on my return to my home region, I was proud to showcase some fantastic Indigenous fashion, bringing attention to designers who are artists in their own right.

I have seen the power of arts and artists in the past year and it inspires me to move forward.

Here, at the Arctic Arts Summit, striking, thought-provoking, original works surround you. Like the best art, they tell a story, and bring us along on a journey of discovery. They let us see our society, our country, our world through your eyes.

And we need your unique points of view.

Too often we let others tell our story, speak for us, define us. It has happened to Indigenous peoples for much too long, not to mention other minority communities.

Jesse Wente, chair of the Canada Council for the Arts, and who is with us here today, has discussed the concept of “narrative sovereignty.”

To quote from Mr. Wente’s book, Unreconciled: “Narrative sovereignty is the idea that people, communities and nations should control their own stories and the tools used in that storytelling.”

When we take back our stories, reclaim them, speak them in our own languages, we can start to shape ourselves and how others perceive us. We can better communicate and can spark conversations on matters of fairness, equality, justice and even reconciliation.

Art can lead with reconciliation, which is not a single act, but instead an ongoing commitment to building and rebuilding our relationship with each other and with our land. It’s opening our minds and reshaping our priorities. It’s addressing the deep wounds of the past and finding ways to heal together.

I believe this comes down to the truth: understanding the realities of others, learning about different cultures and beliefs, and stepping back to give space for people to tell their stories, without judgment or recrimination.

No matter what medium you work in, you’re controlling your stories, learning and growing from adversity and showing us who you are and where you come from.

By the North and from the North.

Of course, this isn’t new. For thousands of years, artists found a way to communicate with each other, and they still speak to us today.

Christi Belcourt, a Métis visual artist and author, explains why art is a tool of connection as well as communication. To quote: “Using Métis historical art as the foundation of my art has [brought] a sense of continuity between the past and present: to celebrate my culture for having survived through those tough years of extreme poverty, abuse and shame.”

And looking outside Canada, we have examples from the Sámi people, who created rock paintings that still resonate with their story and with their ancestors.

First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples—all Indigenous peoples around the world—passed down stories through the generations.

While growing up, my grandmother would tell us Inuit legends, and my favourite was always Sedna.

For those who may not have heard this one, the story of Sedna is how she becomes ruler of the Inuit underworld and how different species of seals, walruses and other sea mammals were born.

It’s a creation myth.

Our stories, and how we tell those stories, are how we create ourselves. How we define ourselves.

We need to nurture and protect our stories and our storytellers. We need to find room in the world and in our hearts for all stories to thrive.

And they are thriving. Here is the proof! Your art is the proof!

Through visual arts and performing arts, through storytelling and through fashion. Carvings and paintings and plays. So many ways to acknowledge the truth, so many ways to achieve narrative sovereignty. The end result? A transformation of the Arctic region into an artistic juggernaut that will also encourage greater understanding, respect and reconciliation.

In Mr. Wente’s words: “…when that truth is finally acknowledged, meaningful change can spark and spread like fire.”

There are hard challenges in creating art and speaking truth, particularly in today’s world of misinformation, instant gratification and snap judgments, but I know that you will rise to meet this moment in our history.

It’s wonderful that we can finally gather like this once again after too long apart. I hope you will use this gathering as a time to renew yourselves, to meet new people, to discover new favourite artists and to connect with each other. That connection is what will drive you forward for the next year. I know it drives me.

There is a word I often use in Inuktitut, that some of you already know. That word is: ajuinnata. This is an important concept for Inuit. It means to never give up and to commit yourselves to action, no matter how difficult the cause may be. You all live with ajuinnata in your hearts.

I’d like to leave you with the words of Norma Dunning, winner of the 2021 Governor General’s Literary Award in Fiction. She’s an Inuit author, and wrote an essay about connecting with a new fan in person after too many years of pandemic isolation. Although she speaks about books here, I believe this quote applies to all art, all our stories.

“I think about how books make us reach out to one another. How they make us explore something we have never thought of. How they make us understand things that we have struggled with. How different ethnicities can reach out to form a common ground.”

Thank you for sharing your vision with us and for continuing to find ways to astonish us with your art.

Whit and I will leave here renewed in spirit after seeing the world through your eyes. 

Thank you.