From grassroots in Nunavut to the circumpolar world: Alianait Arts Festival returns to Iqaluit

The Alianait Arts Festival is back in Iqaluit, featuring art exhibits, musical performances and workshops across the city.

The event, which is in its 20th year, runs until Tuesday, coinciding with Nunavut Day. It will bring together around 50 artists, including Twin Flames, Nunavut singer-songwriter Aasiva and Greenlandic groups Sound of the Damned and Nanook Unplugged Duo.

The Alianait festival was born in the middle of the summer solstice in 2005, thanks to a handful of volunteers and a few determined residents.

What a started as "a grassroots festival with no money" quickly became a renowned musical showcase for the North, said its founder Heather Daley, who held the reins for almost 15 years.

"We came up with a name ... we got a colleague to do a logo, we did a little press conference, and all of a sudden we had a festival," Daley said.

Without a performing arts centre, artists have long shared the stage at Nakasuk and Aqsarniit schools in Iqaluit during the festival. Then, in 2008, the organization acquired its well-known yellow and purple striped tent, and built a stage inside.

Terry Uyarak from Igloolik has performed for at least 10 editions of the Alianait Arts Festival in Iqaluit, including the festival in 2023, pictured here.
Terry Uyarak from Igloolik has performed for at least 10 editions of the Alianait Arts Festival in Iqaluit, including the festival in 2023, pictured here. (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada )

Connecting through art

Between the high cost of travel and the absence of recording studios and performing arts venues, the challenges facing artists in Nunavut are numerous.

Many see the festival as a way to overcome these obstacles by supporting emerging artists and strengthening ties between the different circumpolar regions.

Igloolik singer-songwriter and Artcirq performer Terry Uyarak said he's performed at the festival "a good 10 times" since it started.

"We didn't used to like Iqaluit before, because we didn't know anyone," Uyarak said.

Years later, he doesn't feel that way anymore.

"We have made it our second home," he said. "All my lyrics are in Inuktitut and ... in Iqaluit, everyone understands. We all meet friends and family there."

For Uyarak, Alianait is a unique opportunity to make connections with other artists from the circumpolar north, including Greenland.

"That has been the most inspiring thing for me," he said.

"It really opened doors to meeting artists from all over the world. It has always given us meaningful time on stage."

Alianait's executive director Alannah Johnson, left, and festival organizer Victoria Perrie.
Alianait's executive director Alannah Johnson, left, and festival organizer Victoria Perron. (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada )

'We became a travel agency'

Daley said she also believes that collaboration between different Arctic regions, including Alaska and the Sámi region in nothern Europe, has become one of the festival's greatest strengths.

Until recently, there was no direct flight between Nunavut and Greenland. The absence of a link by air forced festival organizers to, since 2007, charter a plane to bring over Greenlandic artists.

"Every year, we became a travel agency," Daley said.

"We would sell seats ... for people from Iqaluit to fly to Nuuk for a little holiday, and then we'd bring the artists from Nuuk. So it became cheaper to bring artists from Greenland than it was from Ottawa."

That's all changed now. Since June 26, people have been able to fly directly between Nuuk and Iqaluit on Air Greenland, allowing artists to do the trip in less than two hours.

"There was always a focus for me on bringing artists from all over, but also from all over Nunavut to provide them opportunities for collaborations and opportunities for all the artists from Nunavut to be able to perform on a really professional stage," Daley said.

Alianait Arts Festival's purple and yellow striped tent is widely recognized in Iqaluit.
Alianait Arts Festival's purple and yellow striped tent is widely recognized in Iqaluit. (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada)

Dealing with uncertainty

While some things have changed since the festival first began, others haven't. Victoria Perron, who has helped organize the festival for eight years, notes that financial instability has been a long-standing issue for Alianait.

"We're really relying on funding," Perron said. "We're bringing in some revenue from ticket sales, but it's not our primary source of revenue, which is funding and sponsorships. For non-profits, uncertainty is like our bread and butter."

Alannah Johnson, the festival's executive director, is leaving her position this year. Perron admits it's a hard job to fill, but remains hopeful.

"We're veterans of the festival and we've always talked about bringing fresh blood. In the music industry, you don't want to be stagnant. One good way of doing that is to bring on new leadership," Perron said.

When she thinks about how far the festival has come, Daley said she hopes it still has many more years ahead.

"I just want to see it keep going ... and working hard to build the professionalism of Inuit artists and get them out into the world because there are so many great ones."