Beatrice Deer and Sylvia Cloutier Try to Recognize the Pain

The Inuk artists talk healing trauma through art, and more.

Beatrice Deer is a Montreal-based singer-songwriter; Sylvia Cloutier is performing artist, theater director, and producer also based in Montreal. Beatrice’s latest album SHIFTING is out tomorrow, so to celebrate, the two friends — who are both Intuit artists originally from Nunavik — got together to catch up.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Beatrice Deer: I missed you. 

Sylvia Cloutier: I know, I missed you, too. We’re not too far from each other, but sometimes it’s hard to find time.

Beatrice: City life. Not like up North, where you can just show up and invite yourself over for dinner.

Sylvia: You don’t even knock. You just walk in. [Laughs.] 

Beatrice: And I know you’re always cooking up something delicious, so I would be at your house if we were neighbors a lot.

Sylvia: With good coffee, of course. 

Beatrice: Decaf, I only drink decaf.

Sylvia: I don’t know if I could trust you now. [Laughs.]  It’s true, though. What I love about like food and coffee, it always brings conversation. And I love getting food from back home, because a taste and a smell just brings you right back to a memory. We need to do that more often.

Beatrice: Yeah. And getting food from back home is a real sign of affection. That’s how Inuits show their affection and their love and their respect, by bringing food to you, from their harvest — fish, caribou, beluga. All that good stuff. 

Sylvia: It tastes better when you know who caught it. I was talking to my son the other day — at school, they’re not allowed to share food. They have to be mindful of allergies of other kids. I was talking to him about it, how different it is from up North, where you bring food, just even in your classroom or at your friends. You just share, share, share, share. You don’t stop sharing food. It’s such a different approach sometimes here.

Beatrice: Yeah, food doesn’t have an owner. Food belongs to everyone.

Sylvia: Yeah. If you take it out, it’s for whoever wants it in that space. But it’s not the culture, sometimes, here in the city.

Beatrice: No. There’s stories that elders used to tell us about the famine in the1930s, how even a little ptarmigan would be shared by the whole camp. Very small meat would be shared by everyone during the famine, they were not selfish. They shared absolutely everything and they still do. I mean, it’s different now with the government-imposed quota for the belugas — that has created problems in our culture, where some people are reluctant to share their catch, which is sad.

Sylvia: Are Inuit involved in that decision too, or is it just the government?

Beatrice: Yeah, they are. There’s ongoing discussions all the time with the wildlife boards to have Inuits’ input.

Sylvia: Yeah. Because I know different regions have different ways and different rules when it comes to wildlife. In Nunavut, it depended on the community. I remember Pangirtung had a quota, but Iqaluit didn’t certain years. It depended on which whale, which animal — now the caribou, there’s only a certain amount of tags that people can get to catch. But in Nunavik, there’s been no rules for caribou?

Beatrice: Not yet.

Sylvia: I mean, they’re very plentiful in Hudson, but not Ungava, right?

Beatrice: Yeah. Well, all the caribou in general are in a huge decline. Yeah, they’re in a 90 percent decline.

Sylvia: Which can also be a natural cycle.

Beatrice: Yeah, according to the elders, it is a natural cycle. But also the climate scientists, the wildlife scientists, have been trying to research this problem for a long time, and they say it’s still hard to tell, but for sure, it’s definitely affected by human activity.

Sylvia: It makes you love it even more when you have some, right? It’s so much rarer now than it was when we were kids. So it’s precious.

Beatrice: Yeah, it is. Climate change and colonization has affected us so much. I[‘ve been] learning about it a lot recently, really understanding what colonization means and seeing the effects today.

Sylvia: Yeah. When I was very berry picking in fall, when I went to go see mom, I felt like — because Kuujjuaq’s on the tree line, so we have trees, but other communities don’t. The trees just seem so much bigger now, and mom was saying there’s birds now that are new from when she was a kid. And some people had said that there’s little land animals and bugs that are different, and plants and flowers that didn’t exist when they were young.

Beatrice: Suicide didn’t exist. It was extremely rare, where it was told kind of like it was a legend.

Sylvia: Taboo.

Beatrice: Yeah, because it was so rare.

Sylvia: My mom and my uncle, after we lost my cousin’s daughter, they were saying, “We didn’t have suicide when we were kids. Remember in the ‘80s when that girl died? It was that guy’s girlfriend, she wasn’t even in town… It was kind of scary when she died, and it was unheard of.” And that’s how they were talking. They were trying to understand why young people are not hanging on to life. They never grew up that way. And then we’re the generation kind of in between, because we’re losing so many — I mean, it happens in all ages, but it seems like it’s happening so much with our kids’ generation. And that’s so scary, you know?

Beatrice: It’s very scary, it’s very real.

Sylvia: We’ve both been affected in our families. 

Beatrice: Yeah. 

Sylvia: There’s not one person that hasn’t been affected by suicide in Nunavik. It’s not just a Nunavik problem. I mean, it’s everywhere.

Beatrice: Yeah, but it’s so high in Indigenous communities. Again, from colonization. It’s stemming from residential schools and other atrocities by the governments.

Sylvia: Does it influence your way of making music?

Beatrice: I do have some songs that are that are related to trauma. Like, my own trauma, that stems from colonization initially. So it does influence my music, too, in a way. Although I don’t focus on that when I’m writing a song, but it comes out as I’m expressing.

Sylvia: And it’s not expressed literally, but there’s a root — you have songs that are also about empowerment.

Beatrice: Overcoming, healing.

Sylvia: And honoring pain? I mean, a lot of the messages that I hear from you, even when you’re not singing, I see you being present knowing that you have young people listening to you and your words. You even taught me that, when I stopped drinking alcohol a year and a half ago because I needed to reduce the anxiety in life. I didn’t really consider myself an alcoholic, but I found myself drinking to decompress, and so I was kind of like using it as tool to calm down. But then it created more anxiety. And I was able to talk to you about that, and I don’t know very many people that I can talk to — you relate to me because we come from the North and we have also our feet on the ground in the Sout. And sometimes living in two worlds can be confusing. But it also can be beneficial in many ways. And being an artist, we’re so emotionally… 

Beatrice: Emotional. [Laughs.]

Sylvia: Yeah, well, we can be very present, and we need to feel our vulnerability in order to be open about it, and in order to—

Beatrice: Be authentic. 

Sylvia: Yeah, I think that that’s why we’re here, to experience life in an honest way. It’s hard to do.

Beatrice: Yeah, it’s very hard. I’ve been sober for a little more than 10 years, and it’s very rewarding, but also hard sometimes.

Sylvia: You can’t be like, I don’t feel like feeling this, so I’m going to do this — when you don’t drink anymore, you can’t do that. And so you have to have that dialogue with yourself and you have to be your own friend a lot. And maybe people are naturally like that, I don’t know. But that’s what I learned from giving myself the time and space to not drink. And I developed more trust within myself.

Beatrice: Do you notice a difference in your performing now that you’re sober?

Sylvia: I think performing is a place that I have always known, and I can tap into myself and be there. I’m lucky that I have the stage to do that, because when I was in my 20s, I was a little bit more hotheaded about it — you know, like, I wanna be on stage, and it feels good to have the attention from others and you’re doing what you like. 

But then after a while, it just became about the craft and the art and creating something, maybe impressive, but just good and wholesome, on stage. Now I’m in a place where I’m taking the craft so seriously that I’m branching out and doing things in ways that I didn’t do in the past. I’m rediscovering new ways of expressing myself, and I love that. I think that not drinking anymore has just made it richer. 

I’ve never really had bad stage fright — if I did, it was creating a new song Inuktitut and I hadn’t performed it yet and I don’t want to say it wrong, because I’m not fluent. But I never meant to feel like I had to do things perfectly. And I also know that when you’re a performer, there’s no such thing as a mistake on stage. If you’re going to fall, fall into it. I always say that to people who wonder how they deal with their nervousness. Also when you’re nervous before going on stage, it means you care about what you do. And I think that’s the honest side of being expressive and being authentic. 

To be honest, I’m not on stage anymore to go and impress people. I feel like that was something I wanted to do when I was younger. But now I just want to be real, I want to be myself. But I’m OK exploring different aspects of myself that maybe you don’t see when I have a coffee with you. And I think that that’s the fun thing about exploring character, exploring a story in your song or in a play or in a poem.

Beatrice: What about carrying a message?

Sylvia: Yeah. In a way, as an artist, we’re messengers. And we’re also mirrors — when you see something on stage, it’s like you’re looking in the mirror in many ways. You’re looking at yourself on stage, and if you can see yourself on stage, in the actor or in the song that you hear on the radio, you can relate to that song, that message that is being said.

 

Sometimes we hear music and we can call it like, “Oh, that’s bad music,” or “that’s really good music.” But sometimes it’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that you can’t connect to it. And I think that that’s OK. We could see the same movie and you can connect to it and I can’t connect to it. Does it mean that it’s bad? It just didn’t speak to me. And if it speaks to you, and if it speaks to many people, then I guess it becomes popular.

I love it when people don’t care and they just dance somewhere — they just love a song and they just go crazy dancing and they don’t care who sees them. I really get off on people like that. Up North, when we used to go to the Legion and there would be an older guy with his big rubber boots and he’d be on the dance floor and he’d be dancing it out. We love those people, because they’re just like tapping into themselves.

Beatrice: Yeah, responding to their joy inside. Because we get too caught up by what’s happening around us, or who’s watching, who’s listening. And then we lose our our confidence, and we start caring too much what what others are going to think or say. It creates this cage, this box, then it’s hard to create. It’s hard to be creative when you’re locking yourself in by limiting what you’re doing, because you’re too worried about what you’re trying to make to please other people.

Sylvia: And yet, that’s when you become the biggest judge of yourself. Because in many ways, you created that in your own mind. Like, All these people are not going to like that style, or, oh, I don’t think this is good enough. I can just picture my friend not really liking that, or whatever it is. But really all that was made up in your own head.

Beatrice: I write a lot of Inuktitut songs and it’s — I don’t want to say “limiting” to a certain audience, versus an English song… 

Sylvia: Yeah, you always have two audiences. As an Inuk in the city, you create something that the Inuit will get in one way and the non Inuit will get in another way. And sometimes they’ll both get something, but it’s OK if one of them doesn’t get something, because you have to be you.

Beatrice: Yeah, yeah.

Sylvia: It’s like that in theater. I can’t create something just for the non-Inuit audience, or something for the Montreal audience and hope that the Inuit will appreciate it. And I can’t create something for the Inuit to appreciate and hope that Montreal does. I think that in certain scenes and certain moments when I’m writing or when I’m creating, it’s OK if the Inuit burst out laughing at one moment and the qallunaat don’t, or if something that is said impacts the Montreal audience in a different way. So I’ve given myself permission to be both, to be the Inuk and to be the Quebecois.

Beatrice: Because you are both.

Sylvia: Yeah, because I’m made of both, and I’m also very appreciative of my two cultures. I don’t say I’m Inuk and white, because my Quebecois culture on my dad’s side is very cultural, and I’m really lucky that my grandfather taught me a lot about my Quebecois culture. So I embrace it. I love my Inuit culture, I’ve always loved my culture and embraced it. I think there was a time, of course, for a lot of Inuit when you’re of mixed descent or mixed culture, that you feel like you have to choose when you’re younger. It’s really nothing that I feel I have to choose. 

I respect those Inuit who have white fathers, and they don’t connect with their father, so they don’t feel part of [his culture]. I have friends who have fathers who were maybe French-Canadian or from Ontario, but they didn’t grow up with them, so they don’t feel that side. And I totally get that. What about you? You grew up in Quaqtaq with your father?

Beatrice: Yeah, so my mom’s Inuit and my father’s Mohawk. I grew up in Quaqtaq, so I identify as an Inuk, because that’s the culture I grew up with. I’m going to start learning my Mohawk side, It’s been something that’s that’s been in my heart for for a long time now. Quaqtaq is an Inuk village, so not many Mohawks there. Sadly, growing up where day schools were running, [my dad] wasn’t allowed to to practice his language and his culture.

Sylvia: Where did he go to school?

Beatrice: In Kahnawake [outside of Montreal].

Sylvia: So it was on the reserve?

Beatrice: Yeah, on the reserve, in a day school with nuns.

Sylvia: So he didn’t learn his language.

Beatrice: His father spoke it at home, but eventually he stopped speaking it. The kids were not allowed to speak it in school, they were punished. And his mother was Quebecois, so she spoke to them in French. They grew up speaking English to her, but her to them in French. My grandpa was Mohawk and he spoke in Mohawk and in English. So I think like many indigenous families, they were deeply affected by colonization and lost their language. 

Sylvia: My mom was sent away at 10 and she came back at 18 — I can’t even send my 10 year old to a store by himself, you know, like I can’t imagine putting your own child… I mean, my grandmother was pressured into it. She was told that if you want your kids to have a future, you have to send them to school. She came back only in the summers. At 18, her Inuktitut was rusty because she had been away for so long, even though she was home for the summers. She got a job at the hospital as an interpreter so she could push herself to get strong in Inuktitut again. I don’t know if it was like that for your mom, because I think our mothers are both the same age.

Beatrice: My mom was very lucky that she wasn’t taken to residential schools. She was raised by her stepfather, because her parents died when she was two and then five. So her stepfather raised her and they were always on the land. She started school when she was 14.

Sylvia: In Quaqtaq?

Beatrice: Around the area, because they were nomadic back then. My mom is 75. She loved learning, she still loves learning, and she went to business college. She became a school teacher and then a school principal. So education is very important to my mom.

Sylvia: Hearing about your mom, she was definitely a leader in the community, eh?

Beatrice: Yeah, she’s been the mayor, and always involved in the regional boards.

Sylvia: And healing for others.

Beatrice: Yeah, she established the healing center in 2008. 

Sylvia: It takes a toll, the trauma that mom was sent away at 10 — feeling like you were ripped from your family, I can’t imagine. She struggled with her sense of self, for sure. I mean, we talk about things all the time, but there’s certain things that I know are pain too painful to talk. And same with my grandmother — my grandmother was very open, on the radio and with people. But still, there were certain things that you just couldn’t talk about with her.

I was just always a very inquisitive kid. I still am at my age, and I’ve always I think because I grew up in two different worlds, I always try to understand things in two different ways. And that’s how I’ve been able to navigate through life, trying to understand how people think and how people are different.

I started developing a play about the effects of suicide on a community, because Kuujjuaq had so many suicides at one time that it became so overwhelming. I felt really helpless for so long. And then finally I realized, with the support of the school I was going to, that I could create the story to create awareness about suicide. Because I knew that everyone in Montreal, they have no idea what the realities are up North. We do have to speak up. We’re losing too many young people.

Beatrice: Silence kills. It really does. And that’s what I try and talk about as an artist. I use my platform to talk about life’s hurts and life’s issues and overcoming these things — not that I’ve overcome everything in life, I still struggle.

Sylvia: It’s a lifelong journey. 

Beatrice: It is. Being sober definitely has helped me and I’ve come a long way and I talk about my personal experiences a lot. The message that I try to share is about being open. I’ve noticed that when I had pain and I kept it to myself and denied it — I ignored it, I tried to bury it and forget about it — these things rot inside of us. And they eventually start wreaking. It’s behaviors like anger, violence, abuse, depression, sadness, hopelessness — these are all the effects of our pain that we don’t talk about. And what I try to do in my life is to talk about my pain. So I can kind of find a map, so I can understand where the root is coming from. What kind of trauma do I have to be suicidal? What kind of trauma do I have that I have depression? What’s making me so angry? Because suicide is the ultimate thing you do when you’re angry.

Sylvia: When you’ve lost all hope. I’ve even noticed a lot of people who do end up taking their life, they actually drink a lot just before they do it. It’s like liquid courage. It helps them actually go through with it. 

What we do as artists is, we’re recognizing the pain for ourselves, and then we’re trying to share that message that it’s OK to feel the way you feel. It does go away, or it gets lighter the more you acknowledge it.

Beatrice: And the more you talk to people who understand, like counselors, therapists. That’s one of the reasons why I moved down here, because I didn’t have any counselors that could help me through my trauma.

Sylvia: And you also don’t know how to trust someone, right? 

Beatrice: Especially when you’ve been hurt a lot. But there’s hope. You can find the right people to talk to. And then when you start talking about your experiences, your pain, it’s like a map where it starts to get clear: OK, this happened to me. Therefore, this is how I felt. Therefore, this is why I acted the way I did. And then when you learn that trauma that happens to you is not your fault, you can learn to forgive yourself for all the things that you did because you were angry.

Sylvia: And the choices that you made, and why you made those choices, become clearer. 

Beatrice: And then all that anger is replaced with peace.

Sylvia: Yeah. And comfort, too. We often use our art as an outlet, and I find that really healing too. It’s not the result of healing, but it’s part of the healing.

Beatrice: And you have to be very vulnerable to talk about these things. Sometimes I’ve had interviews where, after the interview I thought, Did I go too far? Did I say too much? Should I have not said said that about myself? But, no. So many people have reached out to say, “Thank you for saying what you said.”

Sylvia: Because showing vulnerability is actually a strength, and not everyone grew up in a house where you were allowed to be vulnerable. And when you learn that as an adult — I mean, that’s what happened with me. I was a very expressive kid, and I only learned that being vulnerable is OK when I was in my 40s. There’s there’s even such a thing as growing into adulthood and not even knowing how you feel, not even recognizing, What am I feeling? It’s too uncomfortable. 

Beatrice: Yeah, when you’re not brought up in a household where these kinds of discussions are encouraged.

Sylvia: That it’s OK to feel the way you feel, and you’re allowed to express yourself.

 

Beatrice Deer is a Quaqtaq-born, Montreal-based singer-songwriter. Her latest album SHIFTING is out December 10, 2021.