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Winners of the Arctic Inspiration Prize Kakki Peter, left, Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, second left, Ellen Hamilton, second right, and Vinnie Karetak at National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

The performing arts have all kinds of powers – among them preserving traditional art forms and potentially even language. In Nunavut, the Qaggiavuut Society works to foster performing artists – with an eye to building a performing-arts centre in the territory, which currently has none.

The group has received what it calls a game changer this week: Its Qaggiq project, a circumpolar initiative aimed at artists in the North, is one of the winners of the prestigious Arctic Inspiration Prize.

This year, the overall prize is worth $1.5-million – up from $1-million in previous years, a result of increasing funding partnerships. The surprise increase was announced Wednesday evening in Ottawa, along with the three recipients – which also include the Tri-Territorial Recreation Training project, which received $600,000 to develop a community recreation leadership training program in rural and remote communities in the North; and the Better Hearing in Education for Northern Youth, which received $300,000.

Qaggiq, which received $600,000, will use the funds to provide performing-arts training to children and youth, and develop and nurture Arctic performing artists – many of whom are challenged by geographic isolation.

The group, in developing a strategic plan on how to strengthen performing artists across the Arctic, will culturally map the region, identifying artists in the most isolated places in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and Nunavik and asking them how they need to be supported, trained or mentored so they can take their art forms to the next level. They're also building a north-specific pedagogy for arts education – working toward what the group calls a decolonized performing-arts training process.

"When we strengthen the performing arts, we're not only preserving traditional forms of performing art; we want to inspire [others] to create new expressions and to carry on the noble tradition of the performing arts in the Arctic in new and exciting ways," says Qaggiq team leader Ellen Hamilton, a songwriter, film producer and theatre director based in Iqaluit.

While the performing arts are important on their own, there is also a cultural value to this project in terms of indigenous heritage.

"People are trying very hard to preserve and promote our language, especially because it's the most widely spoken aboriginal language in Canada, but people are diminishing their use of it and there's all sorts of different campaigns and ways to keep Inuktitut going," says Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, chairperson of the Qaggiavuut Society and an Inuit storyteller, writer, dancer and cultural educator. "But we truly believe unless people use creative expression to tell something deep within themselves, there won't be much interest in speaking the language. In other words, the performing arts are essential for people to express themselves from a deep and personal place in an expressive way, and that is how Inuktitut will stay alive."

To get an idea of the type of work performed by the society, consider Arctic Songs: Ancient and New. The ongoing project seeks to preserve traditional Inuit music by transferring the knowledge in the traditional way – oral learning. The group sought elders who had knowledge of a traditional song and found young musicians to learn the song. One woman in the Western Arctic, the last speaker of her dialect, had been taught a song by an elder when she was young. She was the last person to know it – and the song was 12 hours long. The society paired the woman with a younger member of the community, and was able to teach her an hour of the song (which was also recorded on video) but the elder died a few months ago.

"So it's at that point where we were running out of time," Hamilton says. "Because we now in the Arctic are with the last remaining elders who lived on the land as adults [and know] performing arts that were banished and discouraged once colonization happened to the Inuit."

A central goal of the group is to build a performing-arts centre: Nunavut is the only territory or province in Canada without one. This prize will help Qaggiavuut empower performing artists in the Arctic to prepare for that, creating the programming that would exist in such a centre.

"After the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it just seems so timely that we're investing in our artists," says Geneviève Cimon, a member of the Qaggiq team, and director of music education with the National Arts Centre – one of Qaggiavuut's partners. (Other partners include the Canada Council for the Arts, the National Theatre School of Canada and the Banff Centre.) "There are so many incredibly talented artists that are just so isolated and this prize is really going to allow them to be a part of the mainstage of all of Canada."

There are many challenges associated with this project – geography, funding – but Williamson Bathory says they can't let that stop them.

"One of the impetuses for us to make everything happen is that as Inuit, and especially in my own family, I was always told that our ancestors have worked hard mentally, spiritually, linguistically in every which manner for us to be alive today," she says. "And how dare we dishonour them by not working equally hard."