Tanya Tagaq, the Polaris-winning punk poet of the North, is on a mission to make us wake up and wear seal
In the tundra above the Arctic Circle, the ringed seal is as ubiquitous as the black squirrel is in High Park. The Inuit call it the nattiq, and it’s adorable in a doddering kind of way: about five feet long, nose to flipper, with a squishy belly and a moustachioed face that resembles Teddy Roosevelt’s. Its treasured grey fur is speckled with black, like a pigeon’s wing, and its densely tangled structure traps air and provides impervious insulation against frigid northern temperatures. A seal coat is warmer than a coyote-trimmed Canada Goose parka; a pair of seal boots keep your toes toastier than the thickest of Sorels. To Inuit, these animals are a cherished natural resource, a source of food, textile, trade and security. To animal activists, they’re vulnerable creatures who must be protected from the hunt at all costs.
Tanya Tagaq, Canada’s most famous (and, really, only famous) Inuit throat singer, has three full-length seal pelts in her closet at her home in the west end, as slick and shiny as patent leather. She wants to have them made into a dress, with a baroque silhouette and Marie Antoinette–style corset. So far, she’s taken them to four leather shops in Toronto, and they’ve all refused to work with them. “They were like, ‘We don’t want that,’ ” Tagaq tells me. “They were mad at me for even bringing them in.”
She can be mercurial, shifting suddenly from laughter to melancholy to blue-hot rage—that last one often triggered by the rancour she faces from activists
Tagaq is used to bending herself into a bridge between the Inuit and the rest of Canada. She also buckles the human voice beyond anything you’ve heard it do before. Her sonic gymnastics tend toward the primordial—she clucks and caterwauls, roars and bleats—but her staccato rhythms can sound almost techno, and she amplifies this effect with the kinds of production flourishes you’d expect to find on an Arcade Fire album: electric drums, string loops, twinkling synths. In 2014, after the release of her album Animism, she defeated Arcade Fire themselves, as well as Drake, for the Polaris Prize. Onstage, she’ll usually emerge in an evening gown, as if she were attending a White House inauguration ball. Then she’ll unspool herself, careening around the stage. “I love going out there and looking like a nice lady,” she says with a grin. “Then I fuck them up. I scare the shit out of everyone.” Her music isn’t pleasant, per se. It’s demanding, strenuous, a little bit stressful, in the way that great art often is.
An avant-gardist as much as a traditionalist, Tagaq has transmogrified an Inuit folk ritual into the most punkishly radical sound in Canadian music. Along the way, she’s blossomed into a bona fide indie rock star. She’s collaborated with Buffy Sainte-Marie, Patti Smith and fellow pixie oddball Björk. She’s performed at Carnegie Hall and sold out a show at Massey Hall. There’s a documentary in the works about her music. And this fall, joining the long-standing tradition of rock stars turned writers, she’ll release her first book, Split Tooth, a novel about a young girl coming of age in Nunavut that’s equal parts gritty roman à clef and ghostly surrealism, spangled with animal spirits and snow-blind delirium.
Tagaq is 43 years old, petite and cherubic, with impressive cheekbones and large, licorice-black eyes. She possesses an utter lack of guile: when we first meet, she insists on a hug. She’s cheerful and chatty and remarkably warm. “I have difficulty with small talk,” she says. “So I just end up spewing out information.” But she can be mercurial, shifting suddenly from laughter to melancholy to blue-hot rage—that last one often triggered by discussion of the seal hunt and the rancour she faces from activists.
“There are millions and millions of seals up there. We can’t possibly dent the population,” she tells me. “A family who hunts is just trying to pay their rent.” A few years ago, she posted a photo on Twitter of her daughter Inuuja, then about a year old, next to the body of a seal that had just been killed. She hashtagged the photo “#sealfie,” and immediately faced a torrent of hate. People called her a savage. They signed petitions to have her lose custody of Inuuja and her elder daughter, 15-year-old Naia. “Some fucking asshole photoshopped my baby being bloodied and murdered on my ice,” she recalls. “Some disgusting piece of shit photoshopped my child being cut open. I hate that person so much. If I’m ever in a room with that motherfucker, I will physically attack him.”
As the Canadian North’s most conspicuous cultural icon, Tagaq is also its loudest mouthpiece, agitating stridently and seditiously about the issues that are threatening her people. On Twitter, she’s scuffled with National Post columnist Barbara Kay over the latter’s claims that residential schools weren’t all that bad. “You are despicable, insensitive and potentially dangerous,” she tweeted. “I wish all the positive experiences of residential school upon you and your family Barb.” She regularly tweets at Justin Trudeau, too, urging him to fix the government’s floundering inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and to ratify UNDRIP, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. The Brooklyn-based indie band Eskimeaux even changed their name to Ó after Tagaq spoke to them about the negative connotations. And when she accepted her Polaris Prize in 2014, her wrists adorned with sealskin cuffs, she spewed into the microphone: “Fuck PETA.” On this subject, Tagaq is unequivocal. She wants Canadians to hunt seals. She wants us to eat seals. And she wants all of us to wear seals.
Tagaq grew up in Cambridge Bay, a speck of a hamlet on Victoria Island in the Arctic Archipelago, with a population of around 1,700. The people who first settled there in the 17th century forged tools and weapons from copper, earning the name Copper Inuit among European traders. The village was permanently settled much later than many other Nunavut communities, when Hudson’s Bay Company opened a post there in 1921. Tagaq’s father is of European descent, and her mother, a teacher, is Inuk, born and raised in igloos on Baffin Island before the government forcibly relocated the family to Ellesmere Island in the High Arctic in the 1950s.
Tanya is the middle child, sandwiched between two brothers. When she was growing up, clothes weren’t about aesthetics or activism or provocation. They were about surviving the elements. School was only cancelled if the temperature hit minus 50 degrees Celsius, which Tagaq says happened a few times a month in winter. “When people complain about the weather in Toronto, I scream,” she told me with a cackle. “I’m just like, ‘You pussies!’ ”
The rest of the time, at minus 49 or warmer, she’d sheathe herself in a Russian nesting doll’s worth of layers to fortify herself against the cold. She’d wear sealskin boots up to her knees, and her mother would hand-sew some of her scarves, hats, parkas and undershells, using hardy, rough-hewn duffel, with one layer of seal fur facing inward and a second facing out.
During her childhood, Tagaq would accompany her family on the hunt. They only hunted the males, and, contrary to Pamela Anderson’s seal-clubbing PSAs, they shot the animals in the head with a gun, quickly and at close range. “I just remember everything was white, all the snow, all the ice,” she says dreamily, recalling a caribou hunt. “When you peeled off the skin, it was separated from the meat by this membrane, like a bloody shell. It’s a really, really intimate process.”
The sealskins are often used for summer tents, the meat to feed the sled teams, the fur to make wallets and pouches. The fat is eaten in various dishes or used as fuel. (She is hesitant to talk about the uses, wary of the constant demands from southerners for Inuit to justify how they use the animals they hunt.) Tagaq’s everyday purse is a small seal clutch that she bought from a craftsperson back home, stitched with an elegant houndstooth design. “I like to tease tourists sometimes. Like, ‘No, really, some seals come in this pattern,’ ” she says.
In the far-flung reaches of Nunavut, where darkness falls for 24 hours a day one month of the year, where the sea ice is three metres thick, where the closest city is hundreds of kilometres away and where starvation threatens thousands of lives, one of seal’s key roles is as nutrition. There’s little vegetation in the north; seal meat is a rich source of protein, vitamins and minerals. Traditionally, people would eat the seal meat raw to preserve the vitamin C and fend off scurvy. (Seals and most other mammals produce their own vitamin C, while humans need to absorb theirs from meats and produce.) These animals are to the Inuit what cows are to much of the Western world: an abundant, all-purpose natural resource.
When Tagaq was 15, she left Cambridge Bay to attend a residential school. She went to Akaitcho Hall in Yellowknife, one of the last residential schools in Canada, closing its doors in 1994. She says she didn’t experience abuse at Akaitcho, but the miasma of residential schools, of depression and brutality, infected her. She admitted to me that her novel, Split Tooth, is actually a retrofitted version of her diary from the past 20 years. In one scene, her alter ego walks out onto the sea ice and experiences a surreal sexual encounter with the aurora borealis, in which a hard column of green light, like a shard of kryptonite, violently penetrates her. “I used to always go lie out on the ice, and that idea had been percolating for a long time,” she confesses.
After high school, Tagaq enrolled in the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, where she studied painting. She was stricken with homesickness, so her mom sent her a stack of cassette tapes with recordings of throat singers. Growing up, Tagaq had mostly thumbed through her dad’s records: Bob Marley, the Doors, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix. She hadn’t been exposed to throat singing because it was banned by the church. In Inuit communities, throat singing is traditionally a women’s waiting game, cultivated by wives and mothers to pass the time around the fire until the men return from the hunt. Two women face each other and synchronize their voices, huffing and grunting and breathing percussively, each mouth serving as a reverb speaker system for the other. It’s playful yet intense, performed with the same potion of excitement and one-upmanship you’d find in a ’90s rap battle.
Tagaq was captivated. Even though she wasn’t familiar with the music, it sounded like home. She started practising in the shower, synthesizing both sides of the traditional duet into her own shockingly powerful voice, which was somehow able to accelerate from a kitten’s purr to a grizzly’s roar. Toward the end of her time at college, she exhibited a selection of her paintings at the Great Northern Arts Festival in Inuvik. One drunken night, a musical act failed to show up, and Tagaq took the stage instead, performing her twisty take on throat singing. As it turned out, some friends of Björk’s were in the audience, and they became obsessed with her breathy, syncopated beats. Within weeks, she’d been whisked away on Björk’s world tour.
Tagaq moved to Toronto in 2016, settling in Trinity Bellwoods with her kids. Naia’s father is the Basque percussionist Felipe Ugarte, and Inuuja’s is Casey Balden, an infantry officer with the Canadian Army. “I have two daughters from two different men, and I’m very, very, very proud of us,” she says. “We have a beautiful relationship.” Although Tagaq lives in the city’s most self-consciously voguish neighbourhood, a Where’s Waldo world of silk rompers, floaty vintage dresses and ironic enamel pins, she doesn’t consider herself a fashionable person. “I went into a coffee shop one day. I had my glasses on and this shitty ball cap, my everyday onesie, my sealskin boots and a jean jacket. Some girl nudged her friend, pointed at me, and said, ‘That’s you,’ ” she recalls. “I have trouble with fashion. Because I want to be respected in the same way when I’m out in my onesie as when I’m wearing a gown.”
Her performance costumes are spectacular, transforming the diminutive Tagaq into the formidable presence she embodies onstage. She favours structured bodices with dramatic full skirts, often accentuated with materials from the natural world: antlers, eider feathers, fish scales that shimmer like silver lamé. Teresa Burrows, an artist from Thompson, Manitoba, used thousands of iridescent glass beads to recreate Tagaq’s face in photographic detail on the bodice of a dress; she made another gown with sealskin sleeves. One of Tagaq’s favourite costumes is a knee-length dress covered in shattered mirrors, which cast a spectral light across the stage. And she’s obsessed with the work of Christi Belcourt, a Métis artist from Scarborough, whose dusky, jewel-toned prints and beaded embroideries were the inspiration for a Valentino collection in 2016.
Tagaq has a terrible poker face. Every potent emotion seems to live just below her skin, threatening to extrude through her pores. In late June, she and I had lunch at Union, a woodsy bistro on Ossington. As our server cleared our plates, Tagaq checked her phone. Her face turned to granite. She’d received a text from back home: a friend’s 14-year-old son had killed himself. Tagaq’s mom had taught him in school. As I fumbled with condolences, her grief turned to desperation. “All across Nunavut, people are just dropping, dropping, dropping, dropping like flies. How do we shoulder the burden of this oppression?”
“I’m hoping sealskin will become posh, that people will see it the way they see leather”
Tagaq told me she often feels like an alien walking around in Toronto. That while the media dutifully reports the suicide rates in the North, people here don’t understand the scale of the decimation and the sorrow that comes when it affects people you know. And at that moment, the conversation returned, as it always does, to seal. “I’m hoping sealskin will become posh, that people will see it the way they see leather. Buying a sealskin purse will help boost our economy so we can get our shit together.” According to Tagaq, the only thing preventing Canadians from wearing and eating seals the way we do cows is propaganda—the PETA billboards starring naked, dewy-skinned actresses, the videos of big-eyed baby seals flopping around the sea ice, their faces like Labrador puppies. This all feeds into the ignorance surrounding Inuit hunting traditions. She argues that if demand for seal pelts keeps going down, Canada’s Inuit population might be cornered into non-renewable resource development, like mining and fossil fuels, which will obliterate the wildlife habitats these activists are trying to protect. “These animal rights activists are destroying more life than they can possibly comprehend,” she says.
As we wrapped up our meal, we chatted about her photo shoot for this magazine, and her mood lifted. She told me about a piece she’d just purchased: a sheer, embroidered gown by the Danish designer Henrik Vibskov, which she bought at Frances Watson on Queen Street West and wears onstage with just a bathing suit underneath. “I grew up with a lot of insecurities. I felt like I was riding on my personality, because I have a sparkling personality,” she says (and she does). “Now I feel like I’m in this blooming part of my life.”
When she found out about the shoot, she said, she was hit with a flush of anxiety. Should she diet? Work out like a fiend? “Then I realized that everyone needs to accept themselves the way they are,” she says, laughing brightly. “Fuck it. Fuck it, fuck it, fuck it, fuck it.”
This story originally appeared in Toronto Life Stylebook 2018. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.