Nunavut throat singer among Order of Canada recipients

Tanya Tagaq Gillis is among 100 Canadians awarded one of the nation's highest civilian honours

OTTAWA – As Canada enters a year marked by national birthday celebrations and the beginnings of an inquiry into the country’s past, sordid treatment of its indigenous peoples, Nunavut-based throat singer Tanya Tagaq Gillis hopes her music will open minds and lead to change.

So far, though, she’s been confronted by some closed ones — people who send her hate mail over how her art form breaks from tradition.

At home in the North, Tagaq Gillis, who is among the latest list of 100 Canadians to be awarded the Order of Canada, sees herself just like anyone else.

“I’m a very peaceful, lasagna, Betty Crocker mom when I’m not on stage,” Tagaq Gillis said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

But in the spotlight, her persona can be dark and her music an intense ballet, often with psychedelic undertones and animalistic fury, that she admits may rub some people the wrong way.

“I’m not into happy, pretty, sweet art that I can eat with a spoon,” said the 41-year-old mother from Cambridge Bay.

Sometimes her art comes in the form of a statement of outrage over things like the sexual abuse that has permeated some indigenous communities and society’s worship of oil and material wealth, such as in her music video, “Retribution.”

“There’s a correlation between the sounds that I am making that are ‘strange or ugly’ and rampant child abuse in Nunavut,” said Tagaq Gillis, who said she gets much inspiration from other contemporary artists. She mentions entertainer Britney Spears and conceptual portrait photographer Cindy Sherman.

“You have to be able to put those two things together,” she said.

“I’m trying to bring awareness to certain situations without lending ourselves to objectification.”

While she has a hard time accepting criticism of her art for not being traditional enough, Tagaq Gillis said her critics will have to change — not her — because throat singing, which she said was almost lost under the overpowering influence of religion and colonial rule, is making a resurgence in indigenous communities where young people are embracing it, and mixing it with beat-box and hip hop.

“A lot of people are unwilling to accept that as an authentic, indigenous form of art,” she said.

“But I’m not trying to make something that is pretty or palatable. It’s a commentary. And while it’s not ‘comfortable,’ it’s through discomfort that change happens.”

Tagaq Gillis equates her music about child abuse to the fight for gay rights in the North that began in the 1980s.

Jan Andrews, who was also named Friday as a member of the Order of Canada, expresses herself differently, more quietly.

But the storyteller and author of a number of children’s books, including Rude Stories, is just as passionate in describing how Canada’s evolving diversity has allowed her to open up about her own life.

Known widely for leaving audiences quietly spell bound by her storytelling performances, Andrews’ most recent recorded work is “Written in the Body,” a story about gender confusion and something that is part of her own life story.

“I grew up in a time when lesbians just didn’t exist,” said Andrews, who was born in 1942.

“I remember, growing up as a kid, what I wanted more than anything else was to be a boy,” she said in an interview from her home, where she is nursing an arm broken while skiing over the holidays.

Andrews, who emigrated to Canada from England when she was 21, first living in Saskatoon before settling in Lanark, Ont., said she cherishes Canada’s cultural diversity, and sees her work as a blend of traditional stories with some that compel her audiences to think about bigger issues.

“I delight in the landscape and ‘feeling’ of our living wherever I go,” she said on her website.

Canadians can be “inspired” by the latest recipients of the Order of Canada, Gov. Gen. David Johnston said Friday in announcing the appointments, comprised of 75 members, 22 officers and three companions — the highest elevation of the title.

The list also includes former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Morris Fish, former federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff and former Ontario Lieutenant-Governor David Onley.

The inductees are to receive their insignias at a later date as part of ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the Order of Canada, as well as Canada’s 150th birthday.

“Let’s be inspired by the examples set by these remarkable Canadians and use this occasion to build a smarter and more caring country,” Johnston said in a written statement accompanying the list.

The Order of Canada is considered one of the country’s highest civilian honours. Recipients are named twice each year around Canada Day and New Years.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.