‘Optimism is not a choice, it’s just the way we have to live up there’

The Jerry Cans bring Inuit-infused ceilidh to Halifax  

The Jerry Cans at The Carleton. Andrew Morrison (Vocal/Guitar), Gina Burgess (Violin), Brendan Doherty (Bass), Steve Rigby (Drums), Special guest Riit (Throat Singing/Accordion). (Photo: Karli Zschogner)

The Jerry Cans at The Carleton. Andrew Morrison (Vocal/Guitar), Gina Burgess (Violin), Brendan Doherty (Bass), Steve Rigby (Drums), Special guest Riit (Throat Singing/Accordion). (Photo: Karli Zschogner)

The Carleton Music Bar and Grill was lively Sunday night with no ordinary foot-stomping ceilidh music gathering. The Jerry Cans’, a multicultural band from Iqaluit, mix their high-energy Celtic fiddling with throat-singing to shed light on powerful lived realities and misconceptions of Northern territory living.

For some, it was a reunion between the cities of Halifax and Iqaluit.

“We’ve always heard our music would go very well over here. There’s lots of that Celtic-Irish-Scottish influence,” said Andrew Morrison, referring to the band’s fiddler, Gina Burgess, who is from Spryfield. 

Other reunions took place as well. Karla Serkoak just moved to Halifax a week and a half ago. Seeing The Jerry Cans was a reunion for her and her high school friends — the band members. Far from her community, the night of Inuit culture and language was important to her.

“Hearing their songs is almost universal, it doesn’t matter if it’s in English or Inuktitut, it’s their passion. You just feel the energy,” she said.

The band’s energy and optimism sheds light on Arctic communities’ resiliency. Communities struggle with the highest rates of tuberculosis and suicide in Canada, high food prices, the impact of anti-seal campaigns and access to education that come with modern Canadian colonization.

Despite these challenges, Morrison said Arctic culture always has its kind-hearted nature.

“Iqaluit, Nunavut is where I laugh and smile the most, and I have traveled around the world. There is such a strong sense of resilience,” Morrison said.

According to Inuit Tapirit Kanatami (ITK), Inuit are experiencing the highest rates of suicide in Canada, from five to 25 times the rate of suicide for the country as a whole.

“I’ve had very close friends and family members who have taken their life,” Morrison said. “As a band ,we hear it every few weeks of a young man who has taken their life and it’s very fucking challenging.”

“But it’s not the entire story and that’s always important for us to remember, for people down south, but for young people up north too that these challenges do come, but there is more beautiful elders, young people, community members that are changing the world every fucking day.”

Whether it be through playful jabs or slow-dance protest songs, The Jerry Cans’ music challenges misconceptions of Northern living. The common myth of people living in igloos is damaging, Morrison says. He says it is important that Southerners understand there is a modern way of thinking and doing things up North.

“There are so many fires that create lots of challenges, and people’s understanding, the way they think of the North,” said Morrison. “There is a wide spectrum of misconceptions, and the need to challenge those misconceptions is very important.”

“Seal meat is so important for communities when food is so expensive. It’s so nutritious,” Morrison said following the song “North Mart is Ripping Us Off.”

Canada’s Food Report Card 2016 says “Nunavut is, by far, the most affected region, and needs remedial action.”  A kilogram of grapes is priced at $28 and $32 for Cheeze Whiz.

Morrison is optimistic because he has seen others around him gain national-level recognition: From singer Tanya Tagaq, film-maker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, and Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.

“People are starting to listen, it’s a rising tide,” Morrison said. “It’s not something that has happened overnight, it’s been people who have been working for this for year and years. Artists have had a very important role in making those changes.”

“It’s not necessarily the nice headline for news people but it’s something that we see every day and we continue to try and address these issues however we can,” he said. “And it will change, I know it will, because the optimism is not a choice, it’s just the way we have to live up there to continue to try and continue what we do as the community is beautiful and special.”

Now, the band is focusing on their new record label, Aakuluk Music. Like Riit (Rita Claire Mike-Murphy), who joined them during their set Sunday night with accordion and throat-singing, Morrison said their goal is to help more Nunavut artists tell their story across Canada and internationally.

“Having all their songs in Inuktitut language is a huge part there in keeping our Inuit language,” says Karla Serkoak.