The Jerry Cans Echo A Refreshing Voice Of Optimism For The Future Of Nunavut

Reflecting on arctic life and its evolving cultural landscape, the band elevates and educates with their new album, Echoes. In partnership with Aakuluk Music.

On a Tuesday afternoon in mid-May, the temperature in Iqaluit rises to just below zero celsius. It’s been two months since Nunavut declared a state of public emergency, shutting down bars and restaurants to the public. The city’s only form of public transit, taxis, were limited to one passenger at a time. Amid this pandemic-polar vortex, the arctic tundra’s Juno Award-winning Inuk throat-singing rock group The Jerry Cans drop their new album, Echoes

“Originally when COVID-19 hit, we were super bummed out,” says Jerry Cans bassist Brenden Doherty. “I was thinking ‘How are we going to release an album in the middle of this?’ But I’ve actually been excited every day, counting down the days until this new album comes out.”

We should expect nothing less than chipper optimism from a band that enthusiastically celebrates what most “southerners”—anyone living below 60 degrees latitude—would consider a fierce and grueling way of life. After all, while citizens around the world spent the last two months frantically hoarding toilet paper and fretting about reduced shopping hours, the people of Nunavut stocked their ‘sea lifts’ (pantries) and settled in for a lockdown only faintly distinguishable from their long winters, where temperatures drop below -40 degrees celsius and arctic snow storms limit road, rail, and even shipping traffic.

“A lot of the stuff people are going through now is just kind of normal for us,” says drummer Steve Rigby. “Once a year we used to stock up on toilet paper, powdered milk and canned goods and put them in our enormous sea lift rooms.”

Sea lifts, powdered milk and other everyday normalities of arctic life are dominating themes in the Jerry Cans’ music. The majority of their music is sung in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit people, and talks about subjects ranging from seal hunting (Mamaqtug!) to northern lights (Ukiuq). “The songwriting literally just started by wandering around town,” says guitarist and vocalist Andrew Morrison. “It was all in the spirit of reflecting on what life is like up here.”

The Jerry Cans’ Inuk throat singing, roots rock, and Celtic punk fusion has thrilled audiences across the globe, from Norway to Cuba. However, to the Nunavut people, it’s much more than intriguing and danceable rock music; it bolsters a culture that is often forced to conform to ‘southern ways.’

“In high school, I remember learning about trees and cows and all this southern stuff that was not relevant to Inuit and Nunavut,” says vocalist, accordionist and throat singer Avery Keenainak. “In history class, I remember learning about World War I and World War II, not the land claims agreement or our Inuit history. I remember thinking, ‘why are we learning about this stuff when we could be learning about stuff we have up here?’”

Nunavut does not have its own education curriculum but instead follows the Alberta model. According to The Jerry Cans, there is also limited access to healthcare in the Inuktitut community, counselling, and affordable groceries; a package of fruit cups can cost $50. “Many people in Nunavut were relocated without any services,” says Morrison. “They are expected to hold sovereignty of the arctic for the federal government. But [the government] is not supplying us with the infrastructure or services needed to live a healthy life.”

Isolation and lack of opportunity runs deep in Nunavut communities. The province consistently has some of the highest suicide rates in the world. At its worst, the suicide rates in Nunavut were 11 times the national rate, a harsh fact The Jerry Cans are all too familiar with. “We’ll go on tours and will get phone calls of young people from home having passed away,” says Morrison. “It’s just a very different pandemic that we have been screaming about for a long time, but people around the world don’t know how to respond because it’s not their experience.”

On the band’s new album, Echoes, their robust roots-rock sound has evolved to include darker tracks tackling suicide and grief. It also takes on the grief stemming from a collapse of Inuit culture and the changing arctic landscape.

“Grief comes in so many forms,” says violinist Gina Burgess. “So many places and people used to rely on fishing and hunting food but we’ve lost that connection. And I think that actually leaves a really deep hole in us as individuals.”

Despite these shades of pain and suffering, The Jerry Cans remain hopeful, positive and proud to be northern. “There are so many beautiful aspects to life in the north,” says Morrison. “We challenge the stereotypes with every show we play to show how much life, fun, art, and beauty there is.”

For The Jerry Cans, busting stereotypes and building community goes beyond music. In 2016, they established Nunavut’s first record label, Aakuluk Music; in 2017, they hosted the first Nunavut music week festival; and in the same year they published a children’s book about seal hunting called Mamaqtuq!

Chord by chord The Jerry Cans prove that music is more than just a series of progressions on a scale. It’s a way to give voice to those on the isolated margins, address a crippling quasi-pandemic and break the confines to bolster community and share culture across the northern and southern hemisphere. And it’s working. 

“Growing up, we were always looking to the south for inspiration,” says Doherty. “But things have changed. Now people are very proud to be from Nunavut. Instead of always looking out, we have stuff that is homegrown and it’s beautiful.”

The Jerry Cans released Echoes on May 15 via Aakuluk Music. You can stream the album here