Beatrice Deer Shifting Montreal

Beatrice Deer on music for healing, communicating & upholding traditions

The Montreal-based Inuk/Mohawk singer-songwriter showcases her “inuindie” sound on her new album Shifting.

Beatrice Deer’s smile is a reflection of her art.

The award-winning Indigenous singer-songwriter from Inuk and Mohawk ancestry shines when she discusses her upbringing in Quaqtaq, a tiny village in Nunavik. She lights up when she speaks about her memories, her upbringing. This is why it has an important place in her music.

“My own experiences in my life are what I write about a lot. I use my mother tongue to write because I’m more comfortable writing in Inuktitut,” she says.

Deer’s songs have been acclaimed by everyone. She is a model for her community, a winner of the 2021 Prism Prize, a beloved figure in Northern Canada. Her music mixes throat singing, Innu folklore and a folk pop sound. Mostly, she plays music to communicate her emotions and feelings.

“I know that music is a communication tool, a very powerful one. It can express what we can’t express verbally. It can express the feelings that we don’t know how to put into words. Music can help bring that out, bring those feelings out; whether they’re nice, or angry. And that’s what I find so powerful about music. We don’t necessarily need to understand the language that is being sung, because music touches the heart.”

And her emotions come through strongly on her new album, Shifting. In recent years, Indigenous communities have been reckoning with the abuse they suffered through the hands of the Canadian government and the Catholic church. The trauma they have been going through for generations is one of the many subjects Deer explores on the album. Incorporating throat singing — a form of traditional Inuk singing that was deemed “demonic” by missionaries — in her songs is a way for her to destigmatize her heritage and give it a rightful place in music.

“The Storm” by Beatrice Deer

“Missionaries assumed that it was demonic, and with their oppressive opinions ordered to stop throat singing. Inuits, being very humble and submissive, listened and obeyed. They didn’t publicly sing anymore. They did it in hiding. Luckily, there were some people who wanted us to bring this back before we lost it completely. Slowly, the elders, mostly women, started throat singing again. There were even a couple of them who went abroad to perform in the 1980s. Fast forward to today, there’s many girls, women, even men who throat-sing now. It’s thriving. We’re proud to be able to throat-sing because we almost lost this part of our heritage through colonization, and now we’re bringing it back. We can do whatever we want with it, and wherever we want to.”

But Deer doesn’t stop at her heritage. Her music explores universal themes that are close to her heart. She sings about mental health, abuse and changes. Emotional well-being has always been important to her. Her music denotes it. She addresses it upfront. The singer, who has gone through her fair share of trauma during her upbringing, wants to end the shame surrounding mental health by sharing her experience with others. 

“I’ve had a lot of help, through counselling and therapy. I learned about healing and what trauma does. I overcame these things. What’s important is that we need to help each other and we do that by talking about it, by listening and learning. Music is just my way to have a platform to be able to share stories of hope.”

Beatrice Deer Cult MTL December 2021 issue magazine print
Beatrice Deer on the cover of Cult MTL, Dec. 2021

Shifting is a story of hope. It is a personal story, hers and the ones of those she grew up with, those who had an influence on her. She sings from her heart, telling people her career as a singer-songwriter is a vocation. She uses her songs as a megaphone, wanting to attract people’s attention to her roots, to her feelings. When asked which song is her favorite on the album, she answers candidly “Sunauvva,” an indie-rock song where she addresses her past self.

“‘Sunauvva’ is about me saying, if you would have told me about this a long ago, if you would have told me that I would forgive, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you would have told me back then that I would be happy, I wouldn’t have believed you. But I’m here now. Who would have thought? I am happy.”

Beatrice Deer’s smile is soft, her demeanour is shy and very warm. She attracts people naturally towards her, and has a way of delivering her words through music. With all the recognition, praises and applause she has been given in the past few years, she feels grateful. Grateful for being able to make what she wants to make and, mostly, grateful for giving a voice to the Inuit people.

“It’s a real privilege to be able to do what I love and get paid for it. I just hope that the accolades will bring more light to our social issues so we can get more help for our people.” ■

This article originally appeared in the December 2021 issue of Cult MTL.

For more on Beatrice Deer, please visit her website.

For more Montreal music coverage, please visit our Music section.