As an artist, Elisapie defies categorization. With her latest album, the lushly orchestrated The Ballad of the Runaway Girl, the Montreal singer-songwriter once again reinvented her genre-busting folk sound, using her platform to draw attention to issues facing Indigenous women. Whether she is stunning audiences with her on-stage performances, leading protests or standing behind the camera as an award-winning filmmaker, it is the power of Elisapie’s voice and message that shines through.
For her performance at the 2019 Polaris Music Prize awards, Inuit singer Elisapie Isaac, known simply as Elisapie, wanted to wear something that would make a statement. Elisapie, who was nominated for the prestigious prize for her third solo album, The Ballad of the Runaway Girl, aimed to use her clothing to raise awareness about issues facing Indigenous women.
“I needed to feel that Inuk-woman power and also pay tribute to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls by wearing my red arnauti,” Elisapie says to me by phone in December. “It gave me strength.”
Elisapie wearing a red arnauti-inspired outfit at the Polaris Music Prize awards night in 2019 COURTESY POLARIS MUSIC PRIZE PHOTO DUSTIN RABIN
Elisapie commissioned Inuit designer Victoria Okpik of Okpik Designs to create the stunning, sheer arnauti (different from the amauti, which has a bigger pocket in the back to carry a baby). Watching the awards show from her home in Montreal and seeing Elisapie don the outfit she had painstakingly sewn, Okpik says she felt pride in herself, as well as in Elisapie and the culture to which they are both deeply rooted.
“Being in the North, among my people or even First Nations people, we have something. We are very free people,” Elisapie says. “What you wear can give you something, and sometimes I need that extra strength and to show off the beauty.”
Portrait of Elisapie © JONATHAN BRISEBOIS
Elisapie is driven by a strong sense of self and carries with her stories that celebrate where she comes from and who she is—a strong, Inuit woman. Her lyrics are like anthems of Inuit ancestry that refuse to be erased or forgotten. The opening to her song “Arnaq” is spoken in Inuktitut and gives the definition of woman, her roles and responsibilities. Elisapie’s true-to-life approach is reflected in all her music, including her 2004 debut, Taima, a collaboration with musician Alain Auge that went on to win the 2005 Juno Award for Indigenous Album of the Year. The Ballad of the Runaway Girl was nominated for the same award in 2019.
Elisapie’s lyrics—sung in a combination of Inuktitut, English and French—describe the inequalities facing Indigenous communities and our interconnectedness to animals, land and people. In the powerful “Call of the Moose,” a cover of a Willie Thrasher folk-rock song on The Ballad of the Runaway Girl, Elisapie sings, “I listen to the man of the law, I listen to his way/ I listen to the crack of the gun and the one that had to pay... And I listen to the cry of the people/ Dying of mercury.”
The lyrics may have been written by Thrasher, but Elisapie and her band musically put their own stamp on the song. The beat starts low but the drumming builds, faster and faster, causing hearts to race. You can feel the urgency for change as Elisapie sings, “Don’t you know? Can’t you see? Don’t you know, you gotta let them be.” It sounds like a warrior’s cry, demanding an end to systemic racism and Indigenous lives lost.
The videos that accompany Elisapie’s songs also reflect where she comes from: an isolated community surrounded by the beauty of the people who reside there. There is a mix of sorrow and celebration, an interplay between strength and vulnerability. In the video for her song “Wolves Don’t Live by the Rules,” children play on huge ice formations as the ice breaks. It’s an image that could be interpreted as either playful or dangerous. But Elisapie shows there is another way to interpret it: in being confident in where you stand, complete.
“Sometimes [my songs] can be very beautiful, and fragile and quiet and then it could smash you in the face,” she says. “I’m just trying to be honest with who I am.”
Adopted at birth in 1977, Elisapie grew up in Salluit, Nunavik, QC, moving to a camp during the summer months and hunting caribou, ptarmigan and goose with her family. Although she has lived in Montreal since 1999, Elisapie remains deeply connected to her culture.
Elisapie carries the names of four strong Inuit women, including her grandmother. “Before you’re born,” she explains, “sometimes as soon as your mom feels you in her—she starts connecting to other people around her who have passed.” This naming tradition has been carried on for centuries. The mother will ask, “‘Who are you? Who do you want to be? Who wants to be with me?’ It’s an opportunity to bring someone back that may have passed in order to mourn and heal.”
It is a special honour to be named after a loved one. Now a mother of three, Elisapie named her son after her brother, who was known for his carefree, easy ways of being social. She sees her son’s ability to adapt naturally to any social setting as him taking on some of her brother’s traits. The tradition is also a way to honour someone by keeping their name and spirit alive. It is a practice with deep meaning for Elisapie’s family, and one that keeps her grounded, regardless of where her musical career takes her.
Cultural connection is also a vital component of motherhood, Elisapie says. “I took it for granted when I was a kid. But it’s so powerful. I think the older we get, it’s undeniable—your roots. You want to go back there, to the land. It’s powerful.”
She returns with her children to Nunavik as often as they can to spend time on the land. “It’s a place where I want them to feel it’s their home, too,” she says. “Even if they don’t live there, even if they don’t speak the language, it’s part of who they are.”
Elisapie’s community also extends to a broader network of musicians, artists and activists. In late 2020, Elisapie, along with more than 20 other musicians, put on a concert to honour the life of Joyce Echaquan, the 37-year-old mother of seven who died while seeking health care in a hospital in Joliette, QC. The idea was to create a space for people to safely express their emotions: the hurt, the anger and the love for Joyce and her family. Just as importantly, the concert was intended to raise awareness of systemic racism in health institutions and the staggering rates of violence faced by Indigenous women and girls.
Dayle Kubluitok’s The Ballad of the Runaway Girl poster for the Polaris Music Prize, 2019 COURTESY POLARIS MUSIC PRIZE
“We wanted to gather Indigenous and non-Indigenous [artists], our allies, our friends,” explains Elisapie. “We’ve been feeling the pain a lot. I think it was time for us to just feel a safe place for our emotions.”
However, the response from both the federal and provincial government was disappointing. Quebec Premier François Legault stood firm in his stance, denying systemic racism during an October 2020 press conference where he formally apologized to Echaquan’s family.
In an open letter to the Premier (to which he has not responded), Elisapie included her name along with 36 other Indigenous women demanding his acknowledgement. The letter reads: “Systemic racism does not mean that the people of Quebec are racist. Rather, it is defined by practices and policies within an organization that lead to prejudices and stereotypes that cause discrimination and inequality in public services. To fail to recognize the pervasive discrimination in all your institutions is to give it the right to exist and worse, it is to perpetuate it.”
Elisapie performing at the Polaris Music Prize awards night in 2019 COURTESY POLARIS MUSIC PRIZE PHOTO DUSTIN RABIN
Elisapie has always been a storyteller. In 2003, she wrote and directed the documentary If the Weather Permits for the National Film Board, which takes a closer look at what it means to be Inuit in a changing world. The short documentary won several awards including the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television’s Claude Jutra Award for Best New Director.
She’s currently working on a documentary based on The Ballad of the Runaway Girl, which follows the artist as she travels home. The film will also shed light on topics close to the musician’s heart, including her own adoption and its effect on her identity as a woman.
“It’s like a road trip through the songs, behind the scene of the album, where I’m travelling,” Elisapie says. It also provided an opportunity to highlight her relationship with, and pay tribute to her biological mother, the subject of her song, “Una,” and whom she dearly loves.
Elisapie is currently working on another project, an interactive musical event at the Society for Arts and Technology in Montreal. The performance features a dome rigged to look like the night sky, creating an immersive, interactive experience.
Whether she is creating art or performing onstage, Elisapie wants listeners to recognize themselves in her music. For Indigenous audiences, her music illustrates the hardship and violence of colonialism, yet also shows the strength that comes from our interconnectedness to one another.
“I think trying to be very close to the songs or to the work that I do, it makes it a little bit like a mirror to people,” she says. “By seeing me go into that vulnerable or that very strong side, it’s only going to remind them what they probably feel.”
This Feature was originally published in the Spring 2021 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.
This piece was made possible with the generous support of the Ontario Arts Council.