The Mighty, Mighty Grizzlies

Photo credit: Shane Mahood, courtesy of Mongrel Media

How Nunavut youth rewrote the narrative of a school and community

Russ Sheppard is quick to dispel the notion he empowered his students to make profound shifts in their lives amid an epidemic of youth suicides and addiction in their western Nunavut hamlet of Kugluktuk. “They empowered themselves,” the former teacher countered. “They just used the door we opened.”

The Kugluktuk students’ inspiring story of hope, perseverance and resiliency is chronicled in the acclaimed feature film, The Grizzlies, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last fall. The movie played in theatres across Canada earlier this year and is now available for screening in schools.

Sheppard was just 23 in 1998 when he moved from Saskatchewan to teach grades seven through 12 at Kugluktuk High School. “It was something I knew nothing about, this entire area and culture, yet it was within my own country. It really intrigued me,” Sheppard said, recalling his decision to launch his teaching career in the Inuit community located 1600 kilometres north of Edmonton on Coronation Gulf in the Arctic Ocean.

His second year there proved to be a devastating one for the school and the community. Kugluktuk was making headlines due to its tragically high rate of suicides. “We had a lot of dysfunction in the community and a bunch of teen suicides from the school,” said Sheppard, recalling three students and two young adults died that year. “When I made the decision to come back (after being offered an indeterminate position), the decision was also that I was to be committed and a number of staff were going to be committed to changing some of those narratives. Part of that process was a culture shift in the school. “It was a typical school but very non-typical clientele as far as the students. Some students didn’t come to school. They didn’t care. Others did come, but there wasn’t a lot of energy. A lot of the school’s approach was punitive. If you didn’t come to school you got a truancy report. If you did, you got pats on the back. The staff cared, but it was a typical school setting and that had to change because the population of our school needed something different.”

In the summer of 2000, Sheppard started a lacrosse program after seeing how much his students liked the sport and how quickly they had picked up the skills the previous school year. The staff decided to build on that by using sports to entice students to commit to their schooling. Despite some initial skepticism, the kids bought in.

The shift

In the ensuing years, the school’s lacrosse and other sports teams – christened The Grizzlies – became the catalyst that transformed students and, ultimately, their community, home to 1400 people.The Grizzlies moniker was chosen because it personified the perseverance that teachers wanted the kids to identify with, Sheppard explained. While the film focusses on the Grizzlies lacrosse team that traveled south to play games in places like Edmonton, Saskatoon and Winnipeg, Sheppard noted that soccer, volleyball and basketball teams were equally important in building friendships and family, for working together through tough times.

Stacey Aglok MacDonald was one of the film’s producers. She grew up in Kugluktuk. “I had a mix of experiences, some really wonderful experiences growing up in Kugluktuk. The land is so beautiful. In the summer we’d play outside in the 24-hour sunlight, be outside all the time, go fishing with our families. “There were other times that were a lot darker and more challenging, particularly in the ‘90s when I was a teenager. Things in Kugluktuk had gotten bad and a lot of our young people were dying by suicide,” Aglok MacDonald said. She considers herself fortunate that her parents quit drinking as she entered her teenage years, but she watched many friends and classmates struggle in dysfunctional situations.

After high school, Aglok MacDonald left Kugluktuk to study Inuit history at Nunavut Sivuniksavut College in Ottawa. It was there that she came to learn about the intergenerational trauma that stemmed from colonization, residential schools and marginalization, and to understand her community. Her perspective shifted. “You see the results of the trauma, but you don’t understand the trauma. You’re never given insight to the trauma or have any knowledge about why it is the way it is. As a kid, I was growing up feeling some shame, some internalized racism even towards myself, my own family, my community because all I was seeing, especially in those teenage years, was the trauma.”

Energized and with a new understanding of her community, Aglok MacDonald returned to Kugluktuk determined to be a better part of her community. “When I did go home, the Grizzlies had started and, for sure, the energy that the youth and, particularly, the school had was completely different from the school I had graduated from just four years before,” said Aglok MacDonald, who accepted an opportunity to work as a substitute teacher.  “The Grizzlies with all their competitions and sporting events were getting the community out to watch and we were all coming together to support something good and something fun, something our youth were involved in. It was very community-oriented and our youth, I think, were moving through town with a lot more confidence and joy.”The Grizzlies players were “definitely one of the stepping stones” in her community’s journey towards healing, Aglok-MacDonald said.

Banding together

In order to play for one of the Grizzlies sports teams students had to be at school four of five days, and they had to put in an effort. Rather than determining eligibility strictly on academic scores, which would have set up many prospective players to fail, teachers assessed how hard a student had worked. “If you met a certain standard on both (criteria) then you were allowed to play on our sports teams. If you didn’t, you were off all the sports teams until you fixed it,” Sheppard recalled. “We put all the control on the kids and said to them, ‘if you show up and work hard, good things are going to happen for you.’ For us on staff, it was a life lesson. That’s kind of the way things work. If you show up and work hard you’re going to be in a good spot.” Any students who used drugs or alcohol were automatically off the teams, which included as many girls as boys.

To engage students who weren’t athletically inclined, the teachers enlisted them to run businesses – social enterprises such as a youth centre arcade and a food takeout and catering service. At any given time, 10 to 12 students would be employed with those ventures. Aglok MacDonald noted that it’s all about finding something that can band the community together. It doesn’t have to be sports.  Other communities that were suffering with a rash of suicides turned to activities such as music, film and even circus performances. “The teams created a gang of like-minded people who had each other’s backs. It created a family who were trying to do the right thing, who could commit to each other — not just the kids, the teachers, too,” said Sheppard, who has since made a career change and works as a lawyer in Cranbrook, B.C.

Once students’ hard work resulted in successes for them, achieving success became addictive and that spilled over into the community. Success bred success. “We never had another suicide in the last five years I was in the school,” Sheppard reported. “It has never again been the focal point that it was then. There’s still some struggles like in any community, but I do think the community is definitely healthier.”The making of The Grizzlies prompted Sheppard to re-examine what had transpired in Kugluktuk. 

Allegiance and allies

“Looking back now, almost 20 years later, I realized what we all did is care for each other. Because of that connection through the heart, we all committed to helping each other through some hard times and good times. When you have that connection and commit to a common goal, what you can achieve is pretty unbelievable.”

That theme is front and centre in the uplifting film and the takeaway for people working in education, Sheppard said.“You can’t fake caring. You have to respect (students) and develop that. We’ve all had teachers and counsellors who have influenced our lives. Those are the ones that we knew instantly they cared about us. “The other message is we all have to work together. There can’t be a hierarchy of teachers versus students. This is a working together program – teachers, students and parents are in this together. Counsellors, principals, we all need to have our ears open and we shouldn’t always just decide what’s best for kids; we should utilize their input and look at their skills and their strengths,” added Sheppard, who still coaches lacrosse and hasn’t ruled out a return to the field of education.

The filmmakers were committed to ensuring The Grizzlies did not espouse the cliché of the white saviour coming to the rescue.   “Russ Sheppard had an idea of the way he could contribute, but nothing would have happened with that idea had those kids not been like ‘yes, this is what we want to do,’” Aglok MacDonald stated.“He was an ally, and part of that is not making yourself indispensable. I think that’s one of the big mistakes that’s commonly made — especially with people from more privileged countries or backgrounds coming into more underprivileged communities. They want to be heroes, the star of the story.”

Aglok MacDonald pointed out that beyond introducing something that the kids and community gravitate to, it’s crucial to give people the opportunity to step up and become leaders themselves, to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to carry on.  “When you’re an ally, which Russ was, he gave all the skills to those students. They were the ones who were valued; they were the ones who kept the Grizzlies going, and are still going today, long after Russ left,” said Aglok-MacDonald, who now resides in Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital.

Sheppard described being “totally changed” by his experience in Kugluktuk, having gained a new understanding of the power of youth and the human spirit. “It really changed my core and fibre to not put limits on myself personally. If the kids in Kugluktuk worked through the problems they had, there’s no reason I can’t. It’s really given me an understanding of that power.” In that regard, Aglok MacDonald believes The Grizzlies sends an important message: Inuit people are strong. Indigenous people are strong. We’re the heroes of our own stories. We’re heroes of our own lives, of our communities. Today, the original Grizzly kids are leaders in Kugluktuk and beyond. Among them are a director with the Government of Nunavut, a department supervisor in a mine, an MLA, conservation officer and several teachers. 

By Laurie Nealin