Runaway Star

January 17, 2016 § Leave a comment

Lucie Idlout abandoned a successful music career for life as a small-town bureaucrat. How’s that working out—for her and the town?

The day the 2012 Sealift came to Igloolik was a workday for Lucie Idlout, economic development officer, and a school day for her adopted son Thomasie. At eight a.m., the barges were already running back and forth between the main ship and the beach, the forklifts were carting seacans of new stuff, and a crowd had started to gather. Pouring cereal for six-year-old Thomasie, Lucie’s eyes kept drifting to her living room window, looking out over Igloolik Bay.

“Son,” she said, as Thomasie reached for his backpack, “we’re getting on that ship.”

Generally, people don’t just get on the Sealift. Unloading is a massive operation with a short time window and many communities to get to before the freeze-up. “It’s something you would have needed to clear with head office before we got here,” confirms a worker unloading a shipment of Jeeps. Lucie points to his walkie-talkie. “Call the captain.” She’s all in black: black jeans, black hair, giant black sunglasses. She smells like cigarettes and gum. “Tell him I’m Lucie Idlout, economic development officer of Igloolik, and I would like to take a tour of the ship.”

The worker bleeps back and forth with the captain for a bit, then: “Tomorrow?”

“Today.”

Several hours later, we emerge from the ship with a stowaway: the captain’s wife is a bookish, Swiss woman who listens quietly while Lucie and the captain talk Inuit employment; but more than that, she’s become completely enamoured with Lucie—her ballsiness, and her stories of a previous life as a rock star. Lucie’s going to be cooking her a roast beef supper.

We hitch a ride back home with the Public Works truck and pass the hamlet office on the way. Outside, Lucie’s senior administrative officer—the one she reported sick to that morning—stands smoking with a few members of the council. He raises his eyebrows. Lucie makes devil horns with her fingers, leans back and screams into the dust cloud forming behind us: “Rock ‘n’ Roll E.D.O.!”

I lived with Lucie Idlout through the summer of 2012. I came up to work with Kingulliit, a local film company, and she had a room to rent. I knew little about her except that she’d been nominated for a Juno award, had once opened for the White Stripes in Iqaluit, and has eight Canadian streets named after a line in one of her songs. In preparation, I found a review of her last album, Swagger, written by Toronto Star music critic Ben Rayner, who rented her room in Iqaluit in 2007. “One of the first things she did,” Rayner wrote, “was level a squint at me and intone, ‘I’m gonna break you.’”

How did she go from man-breaking rock diva to small- town government worker/single mom, and why? In Iqaluit I talked to Lucie’s longtime, ex-Nunavummiut friend, researcher Jack Hicks. “Lucie’s cutting against the grain,” he said. “It’s a general pattern for both Inuit and non-Inuit to move out, from smaller communities to larger ones. People don’t often go back to the smaller communities”—especially after they’ve made a name for themselves in the south. “You’d have to ask Lucie,” he said. “but I suspect there’s a bit of a personal journey there.”

***

“That story,” says Lucie on the phone from Igloolik in 2014, “Born in the community, raised in the community, related to most of the people in the community. High school sweetheart, babies, elderhood, death… People still have that. The people who don’t have that story are the people who moved to the larger centres.” The Inuit translators, interpreters, writers and politicians who relocated to Ottawa throughout the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s—the mothers and fathers of Nunavut. As children, Lucie and her two older siblings followed their single mom, Leah, wherever the government work went—usually from Ottawa to Iqaluit and back on a yearly basis. She summered with relatives in Nunavik and on Baffin Island, and even spent time in a foster home. She won’t talk about that, but says, “When somebody plucks you out of your community and they take you somewhere else and they feed you something else, it confuses you. And that confusion may stay away for a certain period of time, but then you reach a certain age and it’s like, ‘Jesus Christ, where do I come from?’ If you don’t have that story we were just talking about, those are hard answers to get.”

“But aside from the aesthetic,” Lucie says, “being down south didn’t really seem all that different from being up North. Inuit House [a mid-’70s Ottawa student cultural centre] was already established, so we went there pretty regularly; and Martha Flaherty [granddaughter of Nanook of the North director Robert Flaherty] put groups together to showcase Inuit traditional clothing. So we only ever mingled with an Inuit community.”

But a culturally savvy community isn’t the same thing as a traditional one, and when Lucie summered with relatives in Pond Inlet as an adolescent, she noticed her Inuktitut was choppy. She wasn’t interested in following gender roles either. She woke up one wee-hour morning to get dressed and join her uncle on the narwhal hunt. When he muttered, “girls don’t go on the narwhal hunt,” and walked out the door, Lucie cried to her aunt until her uncle returned to take her.

That scrappiness is probably, in part, what drew her to music—specifically, the ladies of early-’90s alternative rock—but Lucie didn’t necessarily see herself as a career musician. She put her resume into ITC (Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, then working on the 1993 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement). A year later, she was on a six-week, six-region tour of the Northwest Territories, speaking to youth on self-government and the constitution.

She was promoted to self-government information officer, working under a constitutional lawyer who “scared the shit out of me because she had such high hopes for me.” Lucie never doubted her own abilities, but after the defeat of the Charlottetown Accord—proposed changes to the constitution that ITC helped draft—she began to question the political process. In the end, she voted against the Land Claim, “not because I wasn’t proud of our leaders…but extinguishing aboriginal title? It felt like we were basically doing a land for cash.” She left the office, telling herself, “I’ll come back to fighting the good fight when I’m 40.”

In the meantime, she was a talented, bilingual Inuk in a young territory. She had a million different options and explored every one. She studied acting at the Centre for Indigenous Theatre and double-majored in Psychology and English Lit at Ottawa U. After courses in Law and Political Science at Carleton, she even applied to the first cohort of Akitsiraq, Iqaluit’s proposed law school, but was rejected. She played the Alianait Festival twice, National Aboriginal Day too many times to count, released two albums, wrote a couple film scores, won two Aboriginal Music Awards, hosted APTN’s Buffalo Tracks, and was nominated for a Juno. “Lovely Irene,” her song about a small-town woman coping with domestic violence, inspired a campaign to rename one street in each province and territory “Angel Street.”

“There’s a meaning to being a young Inuk as the Inuit world finds its new place,” says Hicks. “There are opportunities there that might not exist for somebody who lives in an equally-sized town in Ontario or Saskatchewan. But it’s a double-edged sword,” he adds. “On the one hand, you get recognition. On the other, you lead a very public life.” As open as her every accomplishment was, so were her struggles—three failed marriages, frequent writer’s block, and the fact that at 39, she was still a couch-surfing artist who “spent more time writing grants than playing music.”

“And then a funny thing happened,” she says. “I turned 40.” Education Minister Paul Quassa suggested she apply for an economic development position opening up in Igloolik. “I saw my friends having kids, being in stable relationships, buying homes and setting themselves up for what will inevitably be their retirement. And then I saw myself wandering around, absolutely enjoying my life in every possible way. But what did I end up with?”

She left an Iqaluit relationship that her friends described as appalling, but salvaged the good that came out of it: Thomasie, the five-year-old boy she and her ex-partner had adopted together. “I wanted him to be in a community where Inuktitut was strong, where he would learn some traditional skills he might not learn in Iqaluit, where he would have the best of everything.” As for Lucie? “I wanted to take the focus off me for a bit.”

***

It’s six a.m. when Lucie bursts into my room. “I need a Land Day.”

“What’s a Land Day?” I couldn’t possibly understand, she says. It’s an Inuit thing—a need to get out on the open water, explore islands, eat seal. It’s what drew her to Iqaluit over Ottawa in the first place, and part of what draws her deeper into the communities now.

But she’s not like other Igloolingmiut—she knows the North, but not this land, and besides, she’s a municipal worker. She’s been watching her neighbours’ faces getting brown and healthy all summer, but she can’t join them. They come and go with the weather, and Lucie’s on nine-to-five.

We send Thomasie to school, then Lucie calls in her Land Day. With no other options for escape, we do what a city-dweller does in an unknown place—call a cab. We might ask the driver to drop us off at one of the local fishing spots, the Point or Ham Bay, but in mid-2012, there’s still no cell service in Igloolik. How would the driver know when to pick us up? The cab takes us one street over, to the southernmost house in town, where the beach stretches out for miles, where locals chain up their dogs and toss beluga heads.

It’s violently windy. We find scraps for our fire on the beach—an empty Pampers box, a couple sheets from my notebook, topped with a six-foot plywood plank. Lucie doesn’t care how cold her hands get; she wants a fire she can smell on her clothes. She sparks her lighter again and again until the plywood ignites. When the whole thing is finally blowing smoke across our faces, Lucie leans back on the slanted shale and lights a cigarette, beaming. “What an excellent Land Day.”

***

“I think it’s a fair statement to say that it’s been a big adjustment for Lucie,” says Igloolik Senior Administrative Officer Brian Fleming. He’s just returned from a business trip to learn that she wasn’t in all week.

“I’ve been a musician for 20 years,” says Lucie. “I went from being the superior to reporting to a superior.” Keeping office hours is a problem: “When you’re your own boss, you don’t turn it on at eight-thirty and turn it off at five. You get up in the morning, you start working, and you don’t stop until you go to bed.”

Then again, Lucie’s more powerful than most government workers who come into the communities cold. In April 2012, the Rockin’ Walrus festival, which brings a couple dozen performers and technicians into the hamlet each year, was in trouble. One of the main organizers had recently moved back down south, and the organizing committee was floundering. Weeks before the festival, many of the artists weren’t confirmed, contracts weren’t written, travel and accommodations were yet to be arranged. “[Rockin’ Walrus organizer Mark Airut] asked me if I would be willing to take on the festival. It made perfect sense for me because I’ve been to so many festivals before. As a musician, I know how I like to be treated. I know what details to expect.” She negotiated contracts with the artists already on the roster and called in a few favours where there were blanks in the program, bringing up a theatre and voice instructor and a sound technician. When the hotels filled up, she offered her living room couch. Lucie has organized Rockin’ Walrus ever since.

True, aside from arranging a 2012 heavy equipment operator course, Lucie hasn’t established any great relationships with the resource industry (in particular, Baffinland, which runs the nearby Mary River mine). Pond Inlet E.D.O. Colin Saunders says he’s had 50 heavy equipment operators trained in Pond in that time period, as well as drillers, wilderness and First Aid technicians. But Igloolik’s main export is art. There’s more than a handful of internationally-exhibiting carvers, printmakers and carvers in town, as well as Artcirq, the renowned local Inuit circus, two film companies, a couple of touring rock bands—and Lucie, of course.

It was the arts festival that drew Lucie to Igloolik in the first place. When she played the first Rockin’ Walrus there, in 2011, she remembers, “it was just dripping with creativity…The second day I performed, going into my second song, I yelled, ‘I love this community! I’m going to live here one day!’”

Igloolik is like any other modern Northern community. It battles openly with poverty, addiction and suicide. “But it also has a history of strong community figures,” says Hicks, from strong Anglican ministers to Zacharias Kunuk and Atanarjuat, right through to the kids mentored through Artcirq. Hicks says that could contribute to the fact that Igloolik’s remarkably low suicide rate relative to the rest of the Baffin communities.

Could Lucie be a role model? Potentially, says everybody. That’s one of the reasons she was recruited to Igloolik—she fits in, almost too well. But she lives too hard, fights like a southerner with the administration, and the kids I meet on the street regard her with equal parts curiosity, awe and terror. “Onstage she’s a role model,” says Artcirq owner Guillaume Saladin. “But she needs to get back to her music.”

***

I saw Lucie play just once in the five months I lived with her in the municipal housing she shared with Thomasie and her handful of lapdogs. She had a guest from out of town who’d begged her to sing. She pulled her guitar out from under her bed, poured a cup of homebrewed wine and perched her bare feet on the living room coffee table. It was the fastest, shortest set I’d ever heard—a couple covers and she was resolutely done. But in those few minutes she played, she was gone—out of Igloolik, out of Nunavut, out of any place or question of culture. She didn’t sing; her smoky voice snarled. No one asked questions, no one dared ask for more, and then she clamped her guitar back into its case still humming.

Since then, she’s performed publicly on several occasions, in Ottawa, Iqaluit, Toronto and Igloolik, (as a condition of her contract with the hamlet, she’s allowed to pursue her music career) always with Thomasie at her side. There was a 10-year hiatus between her first and second album, and she says she doesn’t push herself when she’s not inspired. When it comes, it comes.

Is she hiding out, running away, or actually following her destiny, however un-ambitious, of office work after 40? It’s a transition that could probably only happen in Nunavut, and one that in a way actually characterizes Nunavut: a young place with relatively few people to try out many, many hats. “Really, as a musician, you’re running your own small business,” Lucie insists. “So music to economic development wasn’t really such a huge shift.”

This past March, she said, “I started writing again … A couple songs, just the verses, but it’s the first time in a while I’ve felt like writing anything.”

A month later, her excitement has waned a bit, but she’s still working out one song. “It’s partly in English and partly in Inuktitut and it’s a conversation that a woman is having with a man. It’s pretty lusty … But I haven’t worked on it for a couple weeks.”

What’s been getting in the way? Health travel, visiting family, a broken patella. “Last week my house got broken into, so insurance claims, cleaning up, dealing with police reports.” And recently she’s fallen in love again, with retired broadcaster Abraham Tagalik, “so that’s been nice,” she says. “Life stuff.”

This story was originally published in the June 2014 issue of Up Here magazine. Read that version, with an illustration by Pablo Iglesias, here.

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