Jeremy Dutcher puts spotlight on ‘Indigenous renaissance’ in Canadian arts scene

A wave of Indigenous artists making inroads in fields including music, literature, dance and film is exhilarating for playwright Reneltta Arluk, who pauses while discussing musician Jeremy Dutcher’s recent Polaris Prize win to say she’s about to choke up.

The theatre veteran says she was deeply moved by Dutcher’s rousing celebration of talent in an acceptance speech that declared: “Canada, you are in the midst of Indigenous renaissance.”

Arluk says she, too, is buoyed by an apparent cultural boom that has seen Inuit throat singer turned author Tanya Tagaq and Oji-Cree, two-spirit writer Joshua Whitehead make the Giller Prize long list, and the Haida-language drama Edge of the Knife draw acclaim at the recent Toronto International Film Festival.

She’s intent on making sure those gains persist and deepen, and hopes that her role as director of Indigenous arts courses at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity can help assure that.

“When space is being given for Indigenous voice it’s a way that the nation rises and I really love how that is celebrated,” says Arluk, director of the centre’s first year-round program of contemporary Indigenous arts programming.

Arluk isn’t sure why there seems to be a cultural boom now, but she’s glad it’s finally arrived.

“We are all feeling excited about that and that excites our community and allows them to take bigger risks, have bigger vision, because we can,” she says.

“Space is being made at Banff Centre, National Arts Centre, AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario), Winnipeg Art Gallery, Stratford Festival. These are now places that are asking for Indigenous voice: in our voice, not their voice … actually making space for Indigenous voice to be heard autonomously, self-determined and that is a sense of renaissance.”

Dutcher’s album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa was a culmination of five years of work that involved Dutcher diving into an archive of recordings of his ancestors dating back nearly a century.

The trained operatic singer, who was raised partly in the Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick, sang the album entirely in the endangered Wolastoq language.

After his win at a gala Monday night, he called on Canadian audiences to recognize and acknowledge long-standing artistry now gaining critical attention but still waiting to break into the mainstream.

“You don’t have to look too much further than the top prizes in art, in literature, in music in this country — Giller Prize, Sobey Prize, Polaris Prize — we’re here and we’re making beautiful work. So my question to you is, are you ready to listen?”

Indigenous writer and academic Leanne Betasamosake Simpson says she “felt incredibly proud” for Dutcher accomplishing so much on his own terms.

“A lot of Indigenous people and our elders have been doing this work for generations and generations and generations without much recognition or affirmation so I think to have younger Indigenous people just be able to see him just shining, I think that’s a really lovely gift,” says Simpson, who befriended Dutcher while both took part in the New Constellations tour, which brought together Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists.

As for why the boom is happening now, she credits the groundwork of unsung artists who came before and the passage of time.

“The work that the elder artists have done to come before us, the ones that came before me built community, they spent a long time nurturing emerging Indigenous artists. This is part of a movement that has been going on for decades now and we’ve sort of got a foothold, and there’s enough of this new generation or next wave of Indigenous artists that recognition and support has started to come.”

While the talent isn’t new, the reaction from the Canadian public and media is, says Simpson, whose recent work includes a collaboration with director Amanda Strong on a stop-motion animation short that screened at TIFF.

Inuit singer Beatrice Deer, who mostly sings in Inuktitut, says she also sees the surge as part of a “movement of empowerment.”

“Finally Canada is starting to pick up on that and the next thing would be to act on it and to do something about it, to make it right,” says Deer, who moved to Montreal 11 years ago from Quaqtaq, a small town in Nunavik.

“First is acknowledging the wrongs that’s (been) done and then on a government-level implement real resources to places that lack resources … I really believe that there needs to be focus on getting to the root of our pain.”