ARTS: The Great Northern Arts Festival & the future of art in the Northwest Territories

Midnight Sun Complex, Inuvik, Northwest Territories, August 2013. Photo credit: Marcus Jackson.

Marcus Jackson

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Great Northern Arts Festival (GNAF), which takes place annually in Inuvik, Northwest Territories. I was fortunate enough to attend the festival this year while in Inuvik for a territorial meeting on the arts and I learned a great deal about what the festival is about and what it means for artists in the North. I am one of many artists living and working in the NWT. Unlike our peers in larger southern cities, we are isolated from one another. The North’s expansive geography, lack of infrastructure, and prohibitive travel costs, means that festivals and gatherings are often our only opportunity to get together and meet other artists. This was my first experience with the Great Northern Arts Festival — the largest festival of its kind in the Northwest Territories.

GNAF began in 1989 with just a few small tables cramped together in a small, borrowed space in Inuvik. Today, over 120 artists and performers gather to celebrate. During the opening ceremonies over 300 people crowded into the community hall to celebrate the longest running arts festival in the NWT. Elders sat in the front rows, smiling and watching the children playing and fidgeting on the floor at their feet. Many people were reunited with old friends or family members and there were all sorts of people laughing and reminiscing about the last time they had seen each other. The Inuvik Drummers and Dancers inspired everyone with their performance and the Fort Good Hope Drummers told jokes and sang, their drums beating excitement into the air.

The entire festival took place at the Midnight Sun Complex and Family Centre. The gallery was set up in the curling rink, the workshops and artist demonstration area was in the arena, and the performances and banquets were held in the community hall and gallery area. As we discussed the future of the arts in the NWT, it was difficult not to be optimistic with the energy and excitement of the festival going on all around us. Through the hard work and dedication of many volunteers, and the on-going support of corporate and government sponsors, the festival has grown into an incredible display of culture and Northern pride.

Inside the gallery space, including a tepee from Fort McPherson. Photo credit: Marcus Jackson.

Inside the gallery space, including a tepee from Fort McPherson.
Photo credit: Marcus Jackson.

I currently sit as the president of the Aurora Arts Society, which is based in the capital city of Yellowknife. Attending the territorial arts conference allowed me to meet people from other organizations, build new relationships, and learn about how other groups overcome issues like funding and professional development. In Yellowknife, we have access to government programs and funders in a way that the communities do not. We often take for granted our ability to walk into a government office and have a face-to-face meeting with someone on the NWT Arts Council or in the Department of Education, Culture and Employment. Places like Tsiigehtchic, Trout Lake or Lutsel K’e cannot easily access that type of government presence for support. GNAF offered us a chance to develop ideas and relationships for future collaborations with organizations outside of Yellowknife. This is extremely important as groups outside the capital often suffer from a lack of services or amenities like exhibition space or a large pool of volunteers.

It is essential to the future well-being of the arts in the territory to have government support. Most arts organizations are run entirely by volunteers and lack the surplus resources to send even a single person to a gathering. For example, it costs approximately $1,500 for a round trip airline ticket between Inuvik and Yellowknife. For a smaller communities like Ulukhaktok airfare can be over $3,000 for a trip to the capital city. Add to that the cost of a hotel room, food, and transportation to and from the airport and you could suddenly find your organization spending your entire NWT Arts Council grant to send a single person to just one event. Most groups cannot even afford a paid staff member for administrative purposes because there are just not enough resources.Government support for these gatherings helps organizations and artists build lasting relationships that tie groups and regions together. Art is a multi-million dollar industry, but it is often overlooked in favour of primary industries such as mining or oil and gas. Supporting artists across the NWT is an investment in more than simply beading, carving, or painting; it is an investment in the people and health of communities, in the traditions and culture of the people of the NWT, and most importantly, an investment in an economically sustainable future.


Part of what is so admirable about the Great Northern Arts Festival is that it has survived 25 years in a territory whose primary industries are mining and government. Historically, gold, oil and gas, and more recently diamonds, have been the focus of government efforts to build a stable territorial economy. Yet when an economy is dependent on a single commodity for its survival, the impact of a downturn can be devastating. The GNAF survives with support from sponsors, volunteers and because the NWT has a strong policy that supports the Arts.

Networking is an important part of the festival particularly for artists. Meeting peers is an important opportunity to learn from Elders or to mentor young and emerging artists. These encounters help to keep feelings of isolation at bay. Knowing that there is a larger community of artists supporting each other, no matter how scattered they are across the territory, is essential. With such talented artists as sculptor Rueben Komangapik, printmaker Louis Nigiyok, mixed media artist Leslie Leongm, and beader Lena White in attendance, younger and emerging artists have a chance to sit and talk with them, to ask questions about techniques, to collaborate, and to get advice on building their own careers.

There are a number of departments and programs that support artists in every aspect of their career. Whether they are creating traditional crafts in Tsiigehtchic, taking photos in Hay River, making birch-bark baskets in Fort Liard or painting, performing, or writing in Yellowknife, the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) has a program to support them. Support for artists is critical because for many people in small communities it is their livelihood.

The NWT Arts Council has a budget of $500,000 to support the creation and exhibition of visual art, traditional arts, writing, music, and performance all across the Territory. They have requests from artists and groups all across the Territory that exceeds that budget every single year. This leads to reduced grant allocations to organizations and individuals. More requests means the money has to go further and further and because many artists cannot access the next level of funding the pool of artists and requests keeps growing. One way to alleviate the pressures on the NWT Arts Council budget would be to have organizations and artists develop to a more professional level where they can access Canada Council funding. But without access to stable core funding for organizations or opportunities for professional development, artists will continue to have only a few funding options and the strain on the NWT Arts Council budget will continue to grow.

Inuvik Drummers and Dancers during the opening ceremony. Photo credit: Marcus Jackson.

Inuvik Drummers and Dancers during the opening ceremony.
Photo credit: Marcus Jackson.

The Support to Entrepreneurs and Economic Development, or SEED Program, delivered through Industry, Tourism and Investment has a budget of$658,000 for each of the five regions within the NWT. This program supports artists by providing funding for capital equipment, materials and supplies, travel expenses related to exhibition and professional development, and for marketing and promotion. But this money is shared with other small business entrepreneurs and not dedicated entirely to artists.

Other programs, offered by the department of Education Culture and Employment, support arts mentorships, literacy development, performance, and film and media arts.

There is money available to artists and arts organizations but how that money is distributed can become problematic. The application process, program eligibility, and competition for funds often prevent artists from pursuing contemporary practice particularly in the visual arts. Much of the funding from the NWT Arts Council for individual artists is awarded to projects that engage the community in the form of workshops that leaves little room for artists to experiment or create a body of work that develops their individual practice. There is little incentive to move beyond the borders of the territory and a lack of support for professional development means few artists move on to become successful outside the NWT.

With a lack of understanding of what it means to be a professional artist, it is much more difficult for contemporary artists from the NWT to break into the contemporary Canadian arts scene. The Northwest Territories does not offer a single post-secondary arts course. There is only one public art gallery in the NWT, Open Sky Gallery in Fort Simpson, to which artists can apply for a peer-reviewed exhibition and receive an artist fee. A lack of professional development, opportunity for public exhibition, and little or no access to fine arts education makes it far more difficult for NWT artists to compete with their southern peers when acquiring funding from Canada Council. The last Canada Council production or creation grant awarded to a visual artist in the NWT was in 2005.


Support for the festival from the community and the territory is overwhelming because it is a celebration that brings together artists from all across the territory to create, perform and meet with each other. In a territory of just over 43, 500 people who reside in 33 communities across 1,346,106 km2, a gathering like this is an opportunity to connect with others across the vast geography of the territory.

The sense of community was palpable during the opening ceremonies. It was standing room only in the community centre where a long list of dignitaries was on hand to welcome artists and visitors from across the country. Speakers included the Chair and CEO of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, Nellie Cournoyea; the mayor of Inuvik and former NWT Premier, Floyd Roland; the Commissioner of the NWT, George L. Tuccaro; and NDP MP for the Western Arctic, Denis Bevington. Many of the speakers rem-inisced about how they participated in arts activities with their Elders as children. From gathering materials from the land to learning to carve or sew, the sense that the arts are prevalent in all aspects of Northern culture was unmistakeable.

“Ancient Orb” by artist Lyn Fabio. Photo credit: Marcus Jackson.

“Ancient Orb” by artist Lyn Fabio.
Photo credit: Marcus Jackson.

For many Aboriginal families, the festival is an opportunity to meet after long periods apart. Both families and friends share stories and news, celebrate births, marriages, anniversaries and mourn the loss of those who have passed away or been taken back by the land. Throughout the ten days, families get to reconnect with each other, to feast and share their accomplishments, to pass on their skills and knowledge to the next generation. They also share with artists from the other Northern territories and from across Canada who travel thousands of miles to attend.

Many families are multi-generational craftspersons who capture and record stories, legends, and memories of their families and ancestors within their pieces. This is especially true of traditional arts, which are passed down from generation to generation. It is particularly interesting to see the stories and memories emerging in the work of a new group of talented young artists who bring their own perspective to traditional arts.

For the five days I was in Inuvik, the sun did not touch the horizon even once and the energy of the festival made it feel like one wonderfully long day. People smiled and hugged as they reconnected with family and friends. Artists shared their work and drew inspiration from each other and it is these connections made at festivals like GNAF that tie the communities of the North together. Many times while walking the gallery floor I would hear, “look how much that (beadwork) is like her grandmother’s” or “he is just as talented as his father.”


When attending an arts festival in the North, you should expect to see a variety of traditional arts: beaded moosehide slippers, caribou-skin dolls, sealskin kamiks, carvings, birchbark baskets, and stencil prints. What I did not expect to see was the wide variety of other arts that often had surprising combinations of traditional and contemporary materials or themes. From photographs printed on aluminium to jewellery made from recycled computer parts the thrill of discovering something new and unexpected was exciting. Some of my favourite pieces were the delicate paper-like vessels made of hog gut by artist Lyn Fabio. Her pieces remind me of old-fashioned globes with scrawling thread-like text and continents of silk organza burnt around the edges. Combined with the rust prints and patchy image transfers, the orbs appear to be diaphanous relics of another time. The other piece that stood out for me was by artist Jesse Tungilik a young man from Iqaluit, whose sculpture Manhole Hunter cleverly juxtaposes contemporary urban landscape with traditional cultural practices: a hunter, carved out of caribou ant-ler, harpoon in hand hunched over a manhole grate all set atop a broken slab of concrete cinderblock. It is brilliant in its simple presentation yet addresses many complex issues faced by young Inuit today.

Manhole Hunter by artist Jesse Tungilik. Photo credit: Marcus Jackson.

Manhole Hunter by artist Jesse Tungilik.
Photo credit: Marcus Jackson.

Technology has already begun to influence the next generation of artists. There are plenty of traditionally carved sculptures to be seen carved from stone, bone, and horn — many traditional themes created from “natural” materials. There are also new and emerging trends in Northern art and beading is an excellent example of this. Where much of the traditional beadwork was done with glass or plastic seed beads, the invention of Japanese Delica beads has begun to transform the craft. Patterns usually as organic as those found in nature are beginning to change as the uniform shape of the cylindrical beads means patterns come out more accurate and even. Not only are the materials changing, so are the themes appearing in the work. One artist from Tsiigehtchic Margaret Nazon, uses all the “old” seed beads donated by her friends to make three-dimensional beadworks on black velvet depicting astronomical star-scapes and nebulas.

Looking to the future it is difficult to anticipate where Northern art is headed. Many communities rely on subsistence hunting to gather materials and food for their food, traditional clothing, and art. Everything in the North is tied to the land in one way or another. The impact of climate change will determine the future of many people in the North. Things such as migration patterns determine how far hunters have to travel to feed their families and how much food they may acquire for winter. Ice packs and temperatures can determine what access they may have to particular areas where they hunt, fish, or collect plants and medicine. It determines how long the ice road connects small communities like Tuktoyaktuk to urban centres and doctors, grocery stores, hardware stores, and dentists can be accessed. Traditional art materials come from the land: fur, hide, bone, antler, teeth, stone, and qiviut (muskox fibre), and the ability to collect and transport these materials will determine the nature of traditional Northern arts in the future.

With Aboriginal groups struggling to preserve their language, traditional knowledge, and collective histories, the arts may be the key to preserving the rich diversity of culture within the NWT. Passing down knowledge, stories, and language from one generation to another will enable cultures to persist. Encompassing the arts as part of our cultural heritage enables us to reflect and remember the past and carry with us the rich diversity of the North into the future for the next generation of Canadians. ◉

Marcus Jackson is a writer and artist living in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. He can be found at