Butterfly Man

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‘I admire how they fly…they’re just this amazing creation.’

Lucas Attagutsiak has gone through many life-changing experiences. Some were difficult, like the time when he and his family were forced to leave their isolated Baffin Island community for the town of Arctic Bay, where people stared at him and wore clothes he’d never seen before.

There was the time when, on Halloween night 1991, a drunk driver plowed into him as he walked home from work, rupturing his bladder and dislocating bones in his lower body. He returned to work, but his injuries made working increasingly difficult until he needed to stop.

But there was also the time seven years ago when, in his room with nothing to do, he picked up a pencil.

“I’d started to get bored, not being able to do anything,” he said. “One day I grabbed a pencil and I had to do something, I thought, I’m going to make something but what?”

“And then a butterfly just came out. And it took me a month and a half to cover the whole wall with butterflies.”

“I call them freedom butterflies,” he says. “They do things that I can’t do anymore. Real butterflies can zig-zag and fly and not worry about where they go.”

It wasn’t easy for Attagutsiak to leave Nunavut’s “one week of summer” for Ottawa’s “heat”, but there was at least one advantage—real butterflies. “In Nunavut we only have little one-inch butterflies,” he remembers. “The first time I saw a monarch… I went nuts and started running all over the place trying to catch it.”

When his nieces learned how much he loved butterflies, they brought him every butterfly they could find. “One time my niece brought me a half-dead butterfly, and I started warming it up, and it came back to life, and I let it go after that,” he remembers, voice rising with emotion. “I love the shape and the colours and all the things butterflies do that I cannot do. They’re just this amazing creation.”

In the last two years, Attagutsiak has been making his butterflies from caribou antler. He loves the way the bone transforms. “When you see a caribou antler, it’s just bone. When you slice them in half and you start to cut them and work them and then you see [it] turning into a real beautiful form, that’s what I like to see.”

He has sold every caribou-antler butterfly he has made. He wants to make more, but he has no more antlers, and the antlers only come from the Far North.

While he explains, his wife Joyce Halladay shows off photos of the carvings and reference letters from gallery owners throughout the National Capital Region.

They are an interesting contrast. Attagutsiak is self-effacing, hesitant to play his guitar for visitors and not readily talking about the praise his work has received.

Halladay is the one who talks about the exhibitions of her husband’s art. She is the one who puts on Ikayonga, the motivational Inuktitut-language pop album he made in 1994 with Baffin Island friends. She is the one who tells the couple’s story at farmers’ markets and craft fairs.   

The two met several years ago at an AA meeting in a Vanier church basement. They became friends and rapidly fell in love. Suddenly Halladay had a new family.

“It started with Lucas and then it just fanned out, with his sisters and his mother and everyone,” she says. “Even Inuit who would be considered strangers have welcomed me.”

All of Attagutsiak’s immediate family members have made the trip south to meet Halladay. The couple hope to return the favour and marry in Nunavut, with Attagutsiak’s elderly mother present. Halladay is learning Inuktitut to prepare for the trip.

Halladay deals with multiple mental health issues and has been rejected many times, she says, but never by her “Inuit family.”

“They have accepted me for who I am with open arms,” she says. “Everyone has a place in the Inuit community,” she says. “Everyone is valued, from the smallest child to the oldest person. I don’t see that here.”

“To the Inuit, just the fact that you’re alive is a blessing.”

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(short excerpt from Ikayonga; Attagutsiak is playing his own acoustic guitar along with the recording)

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(Joyce Halladay and Lucas Attagutsiak)

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