As globalisation forces change among remote communities in the Arctic, a circus and a festival are helping people cope with despair and suicide – and keeping indigenous arts alive at the same time

The acrobat uncoils herself from a long rope of white material. There is no mystery as to what this symbolises. Her body twists, and she hangs, swinging back and forth, suggestive of somebody who has chosen to take her own life.

This was a performance by ArtCirq, the Arctic Circle’s only circus troupe. Last year, like many of the previous years, they travelled to Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut – Canada’s northernmost territory – and performed at the Alianait Arts Festival. Inuksuk High School’s hall was packed and the audience members who had been scraping their chairs and coughing, now sat in rapt silence.

The movements on stage would have resonated with most in Nunavut where the suicide rate is ten times higher than anywhere else in Canada, and a staggering 40 times higher in the case of Inuit boys between the ages of 15 and 19. The territory’s government was urged to declare a state of emergency following an inquest into the record suicide rate of 45 in 2013. A 13-year- old Inuit girl from the hamlet of Pangnirtung was one of those who died that year.

On paper, Nunavut certainly seems a challenging place to live. Here, 83.6 per cent of people identify as Inuit, a group of indigenous peoples whose heritage and rights to land have been eroded by successive Canadian governments and energy firms drilling for oil. Activists say that traditions such as hunting and fishing are dying out in the region, while high rates of social disadvantage, alcoholism and drug dependency continue to put a strain on resources and morale.

Yet, this far north, the air is crisp, and there is, at least to an outsider, a semblance of strong community. The audience – large families holding wriggling infants and children dancing along to the beat of the native qilaut drum – seems relaxed and animated.

Festivals like Alianait and the community circus group ArtCirq, which recognise the value of cultural opportunities for isolated townships, are a welcome chance for connection. In my conversations with people across the region, I hear again and again how theatre and music have helped to unify communities, particularly those plagued by alcoholism and depression.

Alianait Arts Festival, now in its 12th year, is helping to keep indigenous arts alive as well as promoting performers from under-represented groups. The director and founder of the festival, Heather Daley, describes the event, which ran from 29 June–3 July this year, as a “professional stage for emerging Nunavut artists”. She says the festival, which brings together artists from across Nunavut and northern Quebec, broadens the horizons of those living in the region.

Theatre and music have helped to unify communities, particularly those plagued by alcoholism and depression.

Iqaluit is described as a city in Nunavut while the other centres are hamlets with just a scattering of homes. Yet theatre and music have proved uniting forces. “Villages will work together to house a visiting artist and raise money to support them. Often these artists will run workshops and have an open house, which brings the community together,” explains Daley.

“Suicide is a huge issue here. Our mission is big – to build a healthier Nunavut through the arts. For quite a time suicide was a difficult subject to talk about. Thankfully, this is changing. It’s very encouraging that we’re doing this now and opening up the discussion through the arts. It’s something that affects everybody in the community, and young children aren’t immune to it.”

She explains how careful selection of artists makes all the difference. “The artists we choose sing songs of hope and they talk of their own struggles; they resonate and inspire.”

Sadly, despite their obvious commitment to helping communities deal with mental illness, the artists themselves
are not inured to its influence. Joey Ammaq, a 25 year-old ArtCirq performer died a ‘suspicious death’ in 2014 – widely acknowledged in the community to have been suicide. This came two years after the death of fellow performer, Solomon Uyarasuk, at the age of 26.

Performing pain 

The impact on the troupe and wider community has been devastating. Yamoussa Bangoura, an acrobat from Guinea who featured in the documentary Circus Without Borders alongside Circus Ammaq, told the audience after a screening of the film at Alianait, that it serves as a reminder of just how much they have lost. “Every time I see Joey, my friend, I feel so empty inside,” he says. “When I watch the movie, it feels like all my friends are close to me, then when the credits roll, I realise he is not here.”

Back in the school hall, haunting melodies sung in Inuktitut are swirling around the room. The singers’ faces are twisted with emotion – their songs calling both to nature and to the Inuit spirit world. The slow beat of the drum, and the rasping notes of singers which crescendo towards a climactic howl encourage the audience to tap their feet and enter the performance themselves. The words are not in English, yet the pain in their voices shows that the performing arts are a common language.

ArtCirq was co-founded by Guillaume Saladin to help young people develop tools of expression in this place where cultures from the north and south sometimes jar. ArtCirq evolved to become a community theatre, using the roots of traditional Inuit culture to create performances. Saladin wanted to give young Inuit people access to universal communication and improve their self-esteem.

The collective presents a mixture of theatre and acrobatics, music, drama and traditional dance. Sometimes their routine lapses into comedy and leaves the audience in stitches as clowns fool around and tumble across the stage.

Jessica, who grew up in Iqaluit, describes the Alianait festival as a highlight of the year, and says ArtCirq workshops at her high school were particularly memorable. “Alianait certainly helped to take the blinkers off,” she says. “ArtCirq in particular has an explosive focus on suicide prevention –just watching performers is empowering because they have such a strong message. You can see what they’re talking about and you can understand where they are coming from.”

As its success has grown, ArtCirq has continued to inspire people across Nunavut and beyond. The film Circus Without Borders catapulted the project to global attention and Saladin became something of a celebrity. But this hasn’t stopped him from remaining in the community where the circus first began, the far northern hamlet of Igloolik.

High hopes

After years taking his tiny troupe around the globe, he says: “We’re not special. When we started out 19 years ago, we never thought we could have big shows and invite such great people, but I realised everything you dream of is possible.

“Young people now have bigger aspirations. We come home and people pass us in the street and see we’re just normal guys. We’re just normal people who did some amazing things.”

He didn’t set out to be a circus performer. As part of his degree studying sociology and education, he had to do training in a cultural company, so he went up to Igloolik where he’d spent time as a child, and founded a youth group. Now, the core circus is made up of 15-20 people, (including children of the adult members who sometimes perform), but it collaborates with about 100 artists around the world.

“We never recruit,” Saladin explains. “If someone wants to take part, our doors are always open and we are very much part of the community. It’s a place to come to challenge yourself, but also for positive reinforcement.”
The group runs workshops in 12 communities across the Arctic. Saladin explains how important it is for him to try to bridge the gap between the north and south of Canada.

We never recruit  if someone wants to take part– our doors are always open

“So many dysfunctional aspects of the south were brought to the north. This was our mistake, but we can mend this by looking at the best of our own components – and this is the work we do, reconnecting people in the north with their roots.”

Nunavut’s problems are too complicated to attribute one reason for the high rates of suicide and depression, but it’s widely acknowledged that a breakdown in cultural values and belief systems can be a key cause. Poverty, high unemployment, a loss of connection with the land and geographical isolation are also highly relevant. In Iqaluit, the capital, where there is one fast food restaurant and little else, it’s understandable that the rise of social media has created a popular culture-focused generation who might feel socially isolated among the snow and mountains.

At a screening of Circus Without Borders at Alianait last year, after many whoops and cheers from the theatre audience, Saladin addressed the audience. “It’s your duty to share as much as you can of the nice things you have in life,” he told us. “You’re not a spectator of your life. You live it. Sometimes, when you drive a skiddoo in the fog and you can only see a metre away, you forget the big picture. But then the fog will eventually lift and you’ll be able to see your family and friends and the mountains. There’s always a bigger picture.”

Read how Eleanor went about creating this story for Positive News 

Photo: Félix Pharand