Part way into a discussion of environmental issues, Tanya Tagaq, fuelled by a mix of frustration at the current state of the Canadian government, passionate hope for the future and an endorphin high from the workout she completed right before our interview, calls Prime Minister Stephen Harper a "douchebag."
"Oh my God!" the Polaris Prize-winning Inuk throat singer exclaims when she realizes what she's said. "There are so many bad quotes in here! Please let it be nice. I'm a nice person. See what happens? My mouth's stupid and there's this headline and I'm in so much trouble."
Tagaq certainly seems to have a knack for inadvertently stirring up controversy. When she contributed to the Sealfie hashtag on twitter with an adorable photo of her young daughter next to a recently hunted seal, she did it to acknowledge nature and connection to it.
"I was like, 'Look: my daughter is fresh and the seal is fresh and we're all equal and we should respect our food,'" she says of the now infamous tweet. Unfortunately, animal rights activists and internet trolls (and the worst possible intersection between those two groups) expressed their issues with Tagaq's sentiments by subjecting her to months of brutal abuse online.
This is part of the reason she wanted to address the seal issue after winning the 2014 Polaris Music Prize for her latest album, "Animism," and why she said the now-infamous words "Fuck PETA" in the course of that speech, setting off another wave of controversy.
Tagaq might be quick to attribute these events to her "stupid" mouth, but she's not just another musician making flippant statements to get attention. Tagaq is dealing with ideas and issues that require a deeper explanation.
They can be explored in art quite powerfully – as Tagaq perfectly demonstrated in her breathtaking performance at the Polaris gala last month, in which she screamed, growled, and sang through 10 masterful minutes of improvisation as a stark scroll of the names of 1200 Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (#MMIW) continued its ghastly scrawl across a screen in the background. (See video at bottom of post.) But hundreds of years of colonialism and abuse can’t possibly be summed up in a soundbite.
So we spoke to Tagaq about being indigenous women and protecting her daughters, the environment, residential schools, her faith in Canada's potential to heal and, of course, the Prime Minister.
You didn't specifically address the missing and murdered indigenous women after winning the Polaris Prize. I've heard that this was because you didn't want to talk about the issue in front of your daughter, who was on stage with you. Is that true?
She was standing right beside me and I didn't want to scare her. I didn't want to say, "My daughter is more likely to be killed!" I didn't want to talk like that and bring that energy into her spectrum of being because, for all of my activism, I don't really discuss much of this stuff around my daughter. I'll wait until she's older.
I discuss racism and I discuss life and I discuss people that are dangerous a little bit, but I don't want her to be having nightmares thinking about someone targeting her specifically. So it was just kind of me being a mama bear. And I also wasn't really expecting to win. I got up there and I thought, "Well, yeah, of course I have to discuss the scroll," but I was holding my daughter's hand, I just didn't want to put her through that.
And the scroll was a very strong statement on its own.
People can discuss missing and murdered indigenous women, but when you're sitting next to somebody and it's their sister or it's their mom, it's a different quality. It's got a very real thing to it.
You know when you're very scared at a horror movie? It's like feeling that all the time.
I wanted to make sure that people understood the numbers and that's why we had them going alphabetically, too, so that you could see the amount of time that was going by, and you're only on the letter D!
I just wanted to bring it into the forefront and make it more real, so that hopefully people can be a little more empathetic. A lot of these people, I know it’s just idiots on the internet commenting, but when people talk about getting over it and all of this kind of stuff, it’s like, "look: it's still happening and we need to do something about it." And the very least I can do is add a bit of awareness. Hopefully.
Interview continues after slideshow
Protests Over Murdered, Missing Indigenous Women
Do you feel like the arts community is doing a better job of addressing indigenous issues than the political world right now?
Absolutely. And that's where I get my hope from. I know that there are so many beautiful and amazing Canadians and that it's these ugly people lying in the underbelly of society causing these currents of hatred. It's good to out that way of thinking and not approve of it. You'd be surprised. My friend, her sister is indigenous and she's a redhead. They were both adopted and the amount of people that say racist things to her because she's white, it just blows her away. She has to go, "Look, my sister's indigenous. Please don't talk like that."
And yet there's always this hush. There's an undercurrent in Canadian society. You know what it's the same as? You know all your guy friends that are so amazing and awesome and respect women, but the second you're alone, there are those stupid jerks that beep at you and touch you and bother you and feel dangerous? It's the same way.
Most awesome people I know and hang out with would never think that way or be a racist or do those things, but they don't know the undercurrent. But when you’re indigenous yourself, you feel it. Just like you feel it when you're the woman walking alone at night.
It's like the worst part of stereotypical Canadian politeness. If we don't bring it up or deal with racism, then it doesn't exist here.
We're in a big transition. A lot of people maybe don't want to own up to it because they feel bad or they don't want to be the evil ones. But it's not about the individual. It's about a conglomerate thinking that has allowed a government like this to exist, you know? But as soon as people push around their thinking and we all start working together things are going to topple and we'll be able to move forward in a positive way.
Given your past, and given the backlash you've faced because of the Sealfie and because of "Fuck PETA," you'd have every right to feel at least a little bit cynical about the possibility of change and the empathy of non-indigenous Canadians, but everything you're saying here is overwhelmingly positive.
I'm not stupid. I've got a lot of really great white friends! (laughs) I'm not going to hate on white people. It's not about that. It's about a little bit of a shift of thinking from the old, colonial mentality. And it's hard to blame people when nobody understands the atrocities. People are taught that things happened, but they're not really taught what things happened.
I always find it really funny. Remember when the RCMP had to investigate themselves? (laughs) It’s like, "Hmm. I’m going to check with myself if I ate that donut." You can't check yourself out!
I think what's happening is that the government, for so long, has just been like, "Yeah, we're good. We've got this covered." But we almost need someone else to come from outside to force the situation into action.
I have nine billion opinions on things and how they could be better on everything from the economy and how to deal with our own national resources to racism and feminism, and I guess I have a really big mouth. I'm not afraid to say what I think is right, because I think the more people we can get thinking this way, the better.
You're also investing in the future by spending part of your Polaris prize winnings on your daughters' educations, right?
I'm working on that! As musicians, we're expected to basically give up our entire lives. It doesn't matter if we're sick. It doesn't matter if we're tired. And then we're expected to live on very little money. At the end of the day, I do what I can to ensure my daughters will be comfortable and not get in situations that are even relatively dangerous. I'm going to do everything I can to save all my pennies to make sure they have a nice, cushy apartment in a safe neighbourhood, and provide the healthiest home that I can, the healthiest environment to live in.
I don't know. I'm just hopeful! I’m a dreamer and I'm an optimist. I remember when I was a little girl, I listened to John Lennon a lot and I’d be like, "He's right! Do it!" (laughs) I’m really hopeful and I hope there's never a day in my life where I feel like there's no hope.
With musicians like you and A Tribe Called Red, writers like Joseph Boyden and films like "Rhymes for Young Ghouls," do you think there's a full-blown indigenous art movement in popular Canadian culture right now?
I'm very very happy about it. This is a huge indication that not only are we being accepted into society, but being held up and that's what's interesting. We're the people that the land made, the original land from however many years ago. This is what was produced and I really like the idea of Canadians heralding us as like, "Hey look at these awesome people!" instead of "these dirty Indians." It’s a shift happening.
All of the stereotypes about drunkenness, stereotypes about being failures. A lot of people don't understand there's massive, massive, massive ramifications to the Residential School program and what's happened in our own country. I have a million terrible horror stories, but I don't feel this is necessarily the time and place. People think it's a long time ago, but I went to Residential School for high school. It's not that long ago and you've got to expect that there's going to be repercussions from that.
Interview continues after slideshow
Residential Schools: A Photo History
I think it's time that Canada wakes up a little bit to what's happening. Look at what the government's doing with our natural resources. We're destroying our country and everyone can jump on that bandwagon, race aside completely. The government probably doesn't want us together. Working together towards the environment, we'd be too powerful. There's terrible, terrible things happening and that's why we have to all band together. If we do that, then our voices will have to be heard.
There are so many countries that have a good template in how to deal with taxes and natural resources. Look at the quality of life in Norway. No national debt, a great quality of life because they tax the heck out of the oil industry. It’s just a question of getting someone in the government that's smart enough and good enough to want to do it. And it's just ridiculous that we’re just letting this douchebag [Prime Minister Stephen Harper] get away with so much!
I think most Canadians feel this way, as far as I can see. Maybe I just run in different circles, but it seems like the country's ready for change.
It could be because I run in similar circles, but I don't see a lot of vocal support of Harper these days.
They're maybe embarrassed to admit it.
He's just so sneaky in every single little thing. He just finds a way to slip around what's really important. I just find it so creepy. I know I can't articulate myself properly because, if I was a better wordsmith, I'd be writing instead of screaming my face off. (laughs)
But I've known right from the beginning. Something about him and the way he's fostering this idea and the way he's hungry for power. It's like an insecure teenager that really wants to be accepted and beautiful. But we've already got this country that’s perfect and we've got all of the riches in the world! We're like Scrooge McDuck over here, we just need to find a good way to make it happen. He’s just doing it wrong. It's not like I'm a very, very smart person, but even I can see that what he’s doing is so wrong.
He wants to turn Canada into... have you seen pictures of the Tar Sands? It looks like Mordor. He's saying it's OK and he's muzzling scientists. I just don’t understand how the rest of Canada isn't screaming their face off as well.
That’s pretty much the only rational response left at this point.
And that’s what I mean! There’s a door open. Indigenous people are opening a door. People want to die for their land because it’s that important to them. I think there must be millions of Canadians that feel that way about our beautiful land. There is a door opening. Indigenous people are opening this door and saying, "Hey everybody! Come on! Let's protect this.” And all you've got to do is walk through the door. That's it. Show up at a couple of rallies. Write a paper, write a blog. Post it. Just make action happen. And I'm sure we can do it. I'm feeling pretty positive.