Performer and actor Christine Tootoo, at 22, wields an impressive resume, with credits on circumpolar and national stages, the latest as part of the Kiviuq Returns ensemble cast.
With that Qaggiavuut production, Tootoo has performed at the National Arts Centre and at the Alianait Festival in Iqaluit, and is currently on tour in Clyde River, Pangnirtung and Rankin Inlet.
She recalls the sting of the performance bug, which arrived via throatsinging workshops in Rankin Inlet, thanks to Inukshuk Aksalnik and Stephanie Lachance.
“They were doing throatsinging workshops with young girls. It was so much fun,” she said, adding she was 10 or 11 then.
But it was a move to Iqaluit and Inuksuk High School that would develop her talent under the direction of newly-arrived Mary Piercey-Lewis. Tootoo was a part of Piercey-Lewis’ first concert band, as well as the first Inuksuk Drum Dancers troupe.
“That’s how I started out with performance. I did lots – a lot, a lot, a lot – of performing with the Inuksuk Drum Dancers. That’s how I got out of my shell,” recalls Tootoo.
Piercey-Lewis arrived at Inuksuk in 2008 to head up the music program. Tootoo arrived as a Grade 9 student in 2009.
“She was so musical, just that innate talent even back then,” said Piercey-Lewis. “She plays the trumpet. She reads music.”
In the winter of 2009, Piercey-Lewis headed a production of Fiddler on the Roof.
“Even back then, at the age of 14, she was so anxious to be a part of that. She participated on stage, singing and dancing.”
The following summer, Piercey-Lewis brought Tootoo to the Canada Summer Games on Prince Edward Island.
“That was a two-week beautiful, amazing workshop … Music, drama, dance you name it. I think the ages were supposed to be university students. Christine just exuded this talent and needed to be a part of everything,” said Piercey-Lewis.
“At the age of 15 she fit in with all those older people.”
The participating artists collaborated on a large closing number for the games.
“I can see her now on the phone with her mom, trying to get the Inuktitut perfect for a song we were writing. She was instrumental in writing the Inuktitut verses for a song called Courage. The creativity, the working with other people, the collaboration with all the students, was really remarkable.”
Two years at Nunavut Sivuniksavut (NS) – where she learned to play the accordion – offered Tootoo more performance opportunities and a growing awareness of Inuit history and rights. This led to the start of a degree at the University of Winnipeg with a focus on its Indigenous Studies program, and a taste of human rights.
Tootoo is taking a year off now, with a job at the Government of Nunavut’s Department of Health. About the future and her dreams, she said she wants to finish her degree, either in Winnipeg or Ottawa, in either Indigenous studies or human rights.
“I’m not sure yet. I don’t think I will ever be. I’m so indecisive when it comes to stuff like that. My parents just want me to get a degree,” she said, laughing.
Meanwhile, she sees performance as both personally healing and freeing, as well as having potential to help heal and free Inuit. She is part of Qaggiavuut’s campaign to build a performing arts centre in Iqaluit.
“I hear people saying there’s more important stuff we need to focus on but people don’t realize it’s going to be a part of the solution of how we deal with colonialism and all this beautiful and tragic history,” said Tootoo.
“It opens you up. You’re exposing yourself. When people get what you do, it’s very empowering. Oh my gosh – I could do this forever. And it’s cool because we can also use performing arts as activism, and to express our hurt and our anger with racism, our colonial history. What a lot of people don’t realize is that this is going to be a big part of the healing that we need and it will help Inuit see that we’re so resilient and awesome.”
Tootoo said Piercey-Lewis – in addition to performer/artists Tanya Tagaq, Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory and Celina Kalluk – stands out as the greatest influence on her creative life. The appreciation is mutual.
“She still sticks through as one of the most talented (students) that I’ve ever had. She took it to different levels, with her own creativity,” said Piercey-Lewis. “She was a leader within the group, a true advocate for her heritage.”