On the plane home from Ottawa to Calgary after the Alianait Arts Festival in Iqaluit, Nunavut, it hit me that we were only being spoken to in English and French now, after a full week of English, French, and Inuktitut. Airplane announcements, road signs, menus and in conversation, all three languages were present in Iqaluit, with Inuktitut arguably the most prominent.
Alianait Arts Festival featured Indigenous performers from Western Canada all the way to Sweden. As an Indigenous person who is often not around other Indigenous people, it’s hard to think of exactly the words to describe how it felt, except maybe natural or easy. I didn’t need to explain myself or my story, work to make sure who I am is being properly portrayed, and I definitely didn’t feel pressure to educate anyone. I just got to be. And I think my biggest take-away from this whole experience is that I should be putting myself in this situation more often.
We landed over Frobisher Bay and gorgeous rock formations, stepping off the plane to wide open skies and a hot (for the Arctic) sun beating down on us. Artistic director, Victoria Perron, is there to greet us and there’s a buzz in the air because there’s been no live music in Iqaluit for three years.
We took ourselves on a tour of the town, stretching our legs on the dirt roads. We found the good coffee — always important when touring — and got our bearings for where the grocery stores, restaurants, and festival sites were. Through some trial and error, we discovered that pretty much nothing was open for lunch and a beer except for The Granite Room, which was the fancy restaurant attached to the boutique hotel.
We also learned what to expect from our food budget: burger: $25; salad: $20; add chicken to salad: $17. I was surprised at how much good food there was available in town, as my prior research made it look like there might be a lot of frozen dinners.
That night we walked to the only brewery, Nunavut Brewing Company (NuBrew), out on the western edge of the town, in the middle of what must be the industrial area, covered in sea-cans, next to the airport, and on the edge of Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park. An open mic was underway when we arrived and it seemed to be the unofficial meet-up for artists who were already in town, alongside festival staff and crew, anxious and excited for Alianait to get started.
There was an older gentleman there who everyone seemed to know and were really ecstatic to see. It turned out to be one of the pioneers of Inuit metal, James Ungalaq, from Northern Haze, who released the first Indigenous-language rock album in 1985. It quickly became clear how tight-knit the music community is in Nunavut: Festival director, Alannah Johnston’s sister, Aviaq, told us James was her friend’s dad growing up in Igloolik, a small hamlet northwest of Iqaluit that is home to a ton of amazing music in the area; and 20 minutes later, we were also chatting with Andrew Morrison from Iqaluit roots-rock band The Jerry Cans, who also seemed to know everyone.
This time of year the sun barely dips below the horizon around 11:30 pm and rises again around 1:30 am, and the skies never really get dark, so it’s really hard to know when to shut things down. When 3:30 am rolled around, the sky over the Sylvia Grinnell Park was breathtaking with shades of pink and long reaching clouds.
“It gets better than this!” someone said nearby to us gawking southerners.
Opening night, featuring: Aocelyn, Ivaana, Miesha & the Spanks, Mike Paul Keukuatsheu, Logan & Layla Staats.
The festival ran its evening concert series out of the Nakasuk School, transforming the gym into a hall. The gear is shipped in, so when we were going over amps for backline at soundcheck some were still in cardboard boxes. Kids were running in the halls as we were led to the greenroom.
The stage, sound, and light setup was impressive, and the crew were accommodating and helpful. I’ve noticed this a lot in recent festivals and I think it comes back to the excitement of the return to live music — and, for a lot of us, the return to work after way too long.
The room is fully seated, which for us is always a little weird, because as a loud rock band the energy we get from the audience really helps us give it back. We’ve played a lot of restricted, seated shows during COVID at festivals like Reeperbahn and Norrköping Music Days, so we’re a little more used to it than the first shows back. But the cheers were real big and the lights were hot and bright and I couldn’t really see anyone out there anyways, at which point I just entered the state of given’er. Our post-performance stage hug is sweatier than it’s been in a long time.
Back to Nubrew for the opening night party and open jam! The first 100 drinks were on the festival and we already knew our favourites: Miesha = Sour Ranger, Seb = Floe Edge (lager), Sean = Juicier Boi (NEIPA). It was incredible and we stayed out late enough to see an even better sky than the night before.
Canada Day. We wore orange for obvious reasons. We missed the morning parade, but made it to the Canadian North Big Top Tent for some local performances and Canada Day festivities. The city seemed to welcome the energy, and the event’s association with Alianait Festival, but it was clear by the amount of orange shirts that “Canada Day” wasn’t what was really being celebrated, more like a pride in their own community and resilience.
One of the attractions on our city map is “Hospital Hill,” which is a big hill behind the hospital! It’s actually a beautiful rocky hill, a steep climb, with a great view of Iqaluit. It was really peaceful except that I was devoured by mosquitos, despite being told they weren’t out yet. To be fair, I have been a mosquito’s favourite feast my entire life. If you want to avoid being bitten, just hang out in some tall grass near still water with me.
After the show on Friday night, we were invited to a bonfire hosted by Laakkuluk Williamson-Bathory, a Kalaaleq Greenlandic Inuk performance artist. Assuming it was a beers-around-a-fire scenario, we were shocked and amazed to be led inside to a massive feast in her beautiful home: caribou stew, fry bread, fermented walrus, arctic char, and narwhal were some of the delicacies available. In particular, it was a treat to eat some narwhal, which was being sliced by a local with an ulu (a traditional Inuit curved blade). It’s eaten raw, can be dipped in soy sauce like sashimi, and is very chewy. We would be chewing huge pieces around the fire later that night with a bottle of Hennessy, surrounded predominately by the Greenlandic artists.
Our next performance was Saturday morning at the big top tent: Guitar Rhapsody. We didn’t know much about this workshop, finding out the day before that it was basically a folk fest-style jam with all of the guitar players and bassists from different bands and featuring Sean on drums. As a self-taught guitar player, who plays guitar as accompaniment to my own songs and doesn’t really do covers, this is sort of my festival nightmare. I really hate to “jam” unless I’m on drums hammering something similar to The Exploited’s “Sex & Violence.” It turns out Sean actually knows guitar to that song and we talked about playing it, but ultimately decided an 11am all-ages showcase was not the time or place.
I also wasn’t sure what anyone would jam to our songs. Our new music stops and starts all over the place, is riff heavy, and fast. I grabbed a couple old songs out of the vault that I thought might work, but unbeknownst to me, one of the guitar players had gone over our “top songs” on Spotify to prepare. Whoops! I was super relieved when we were all setting up and Logan Staats informed us all he wasn’t really a jammer either and would play a couple of his songs and then back off, because it set the precedent for me to do the same. All of the musicians who backed us up during our songs did a great job jumping into our music and, as uneasy as I felt, I think it still worked nicely. I stuck around for a little bit on Mike Paul Keukuatsheu’s hand drum, but personally quite enjoyed watching the second half from the crowd. Sean fucking loves this stuff, so I know he had a great time up there drumming on everyone’s jams.
We were losing a lot of juice by the time we hit the night concert: the travel days, late nights, early mornings, and lack of actual night sky had started to weigh on us. We ducked out at intermission, but not before watching Lacey Hill and Aysanabee’s sets. Lacey is hilarious and her conversation with the audience is a big part of the performance. Everything about her is instantly likable; sweet songs with sweeter whistling included. Aysanabee was mesmerizing, some deep soul with slow steady beats and a super distinctive voice.
We caught up on our sleep for the next day, but did miss out on a tundra rave out by the radar station.
The final day of the festival! We headed to the Big Top Tent to watch some traditional music, including Inuksuk drum dancers, throat singing, and Greenlandic story-telling. A stand-out moment was when Rosalie Pissuk, of Rankin Inlet, performed a song on her accordion, and called her nephews to the stage to back her up, who are the Inuit rock band, Alpha 5!
After the workshops we were invited to Johnston’s parents’ house for dinner. They treated us to freshly-caught, raw and dried arctic char, seal, caribou ribs — so much food out and ready to share. Aysanabee was there already, as well as Rosalie, Layla, and Logan. It was a special night in the household because the headline performance for the last night of the festival was an adaptation of Aviaq Johnston’s book, Those Who Run in the Sky (Agnakkussaq), by Nunatta Isiginnaartitsisarfia, the National Theatre of Greenland. She was trying not to look excited or nervous, but it wasn’t really working.
The final night on the main stage at the school was all about storytelling and performance art. Laakkuluk, our host from the bonfire, is the first to take the stage and is fierce. She tackled Indigenous issues and world issues, culminating in her red tulle shawl spewing from her vagina as she addresses the recent overturn of Roe v. Wade. Aviaq’s book-turned-play is performed almost entirely in Inuktitut, so we follow the story along best we can via movement and faces: a hero’s quest to become the new village shaman, complete with trials and lots of battle. Nuka Alice closed the festival with her new drum song and invited the crowd to sing along with her in a three-part harmony. At this point, it’s starting to hit us that our visit to this culturally preserved dirt road city in the north is coming to an end.
Back to NuBrew for the final jam. We pulled up to the bar and received without asking: Sour Ranger, Floe Edge and a Juicier Boi. It took a while for the jam to start because everyone was talking and reflecting and effectively celebrating a magical week at Alianait Arts Festival.
The room burst into huge applause when the festival organizers, Victoria and Alannah, entered the room. Alpha 5 took the stage again near the end of the night: one of their Inuktitut songs has a swaying roll to it and I can still hear the melody. It became a bit of a soundtrack to the festival as we heard it from them so many times, joined on stage by one of their mothers or aunties, with the whole room singing along. When we first heard it, Aviaq leaned in to explain that it was basically about “getting drunker and drunker until you’re pretty much falling over.”
The huge Iqaluit sky must have known it was our last night because when we piled out of NuBrew we were treated to a mystical sunrise, with low clouds fading in towards us. It was the best sky of our visit.
We had an afternoon flight back to Ottawa on our last day, so Aviaq graciously volunteered to tour us around a bit to check out all of the outside-of-the-city sites we had missed!
We went to see the whale bones in Apex, overlooking the ocean and tundra and standing just past a small cemetery. After I made a Pinocchio reference, she explained that people (southerners) usually think bones from the whale’s ribs, but that they’re actually from the jaw of a Bowhead Whale.
Then back across to the other side of Iqaluit, we were taken into Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park — the same park we saw in the distance under that magic sky when leaving NuBrew each night. We headed to the main river to try and track down Aviaq’s parents, who had taken Logan and Layla fishing for arctic char that morning.
The land around Iqaluit doesn’t really resemble the land I’m from in the East Kootenays, but something about it sure feels like home. The roughness of the rocks and the river, and even the dirt roads, feels like the higher points of the mountains I’d visit with my dad, just without all the trees. A common joke locals tell southerners is “want to see our one tree?”
We never did find that tree.
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