A new feature film shines a light on how sport helped bring hope to a remote Nunavut community. The Grizzlies is an inspiring true story about Kugluktuk in the early 2000s, when a teacher’s introduction of lacrosse helped empower the community’s youth to overcome one of the world’s highest teen suicide rates.
The story of the team’s improbable journey from frozen Arctic fields to the National Lacrosse Championships in Toronto opened in theatres across Canada April 19, after screening in northern Indigenous communities since February. The film has earned rave reviews and a Directors Guild of Canada award for Miranda de Pencier since debuting at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
De Pencier developed the project over 10 years alongside Inuit filmmakers Stacey Aglok MacDonald and Alethea Arnaquq-Baril. Aglok MacDonald was born and raised in Kugluktuk, graduating from high school in the midst of its suicide epidemic just before the Grizzlies team was formed.
“The 1990s was a dark time for our community,” she told the Nation. “We were losing a lot of young people to the extent that it felt no one was safe and it could happen to anybody. I remember just wanting to finish high school and get out of Kugluktuk.”
Away at university, Aglok MacDonald began understanding the context of culture loss that had long been missing from conversations and curriculums. Realizing that her community’s widespread substance abuse and domestic violence problems were a legacy of colonization, she returned with a new perspective to Kugluktuk High School as a substitute teacher.
“I started to think – holy shit! – we are strong people, we survived all of that and we are still here,” she recalled. “The Grizzlies were now established and just in those three years the community felt so different. More than sports, it was about teamwork and the community feeling like they were supporting something. The youth were empowered.”
While the film largely focuses on Russ Sheppard, the white teacher who was moved to introduce his class to the sport of lacrosse following the death of one of his students, the producers fought to avoid the “white savior” narrative. It took several script rewrites to reach the point where the story accurately reflected reality.
“It took a lot of convincing to shift the story so that it was the Indigenous youth at the centre of it,” explained Arnaquq-Baril. “It was hard to convince funders to support a film that had no big movie stars. Now, there’s this hunger for films written and produced by Indigenous people among the funding agencies and that’s a completely different atmosphere.”
The film is anchored by outstanding performances from its cast, 91% of whom are Indigenous, including many first-time actors chosen from over 600 auditions. More than 60 Inuit youth from this group were then invited to workshops for training in acting, filmmaking, throat singing, Inuit drum dancing and mask creation with some of the North’s best performing arts teachers.
The producers were determined to shoot mostly in Nunavut, despite the expense. They leveraged the opportunity to create a paid mentorship program for actors, crew, musicians and other creators with numerous trainee positions that will develop valuable capacity for future productions.
The Grizzlies soundtrack features moving pieces by Inuit stars like Tanya Tagaq and the Jerry Cans. But Aglok MacDonald cherished the opportunity to bring talented but unknown northern musicians to a high-end Toronto studio to record with famed sound engineer Jason “Metal” Donkersgoed (known for work with Drake, Madonna and others).
“I don’t think anybody’s ever collaborated the way we have between the North and South to make all these things happen,” Aglok MacDonald commented. “It hasn’t always been easy but I think all of it has eventually helped make The Grizzlies the film that it is today.”
Arnaquq-Baril began working on the film at about the same time as her acclaimed documentary Angry Inuk and felt an immense responsibility to present an authentic yet respectful depiction of what really happens in the North.
“I’m always thinking about the stereotypes that get put out into the world and the need for us to talk about these things honestly without reinforcing these stereotypes,” Arnaquq-Baril explained. “We had to work really hard to ensure we had mental health support from the casting workshops right through to the end touring the film on the northern tour.”
For the three producers, the outpouring of love from Inuit audiences grateful to see things as they really are has been worth the additional cost and complications of screening the film in remote communities. They were particularly relieved that Kugluktuk loved it. Each showing was packed, including the film’s actors and real-life protagonists, with old Grizzlies chants erupting from the electric atmosphere.
Mental health workers are present at every screening, at which Arnaquq-Baril tells the audience that she also sees a counsellor when struggling in an attempt to normalize the idea. Although these professionals were present during much of the shooting, tragedies in other communities meant that the cast were left without support for one of the most difficult scenes.
“It was terrifying asking these young people to bring up all these awful memories onscreen without mental health workers there,” said Arnaquq-Baril. “The youth said they wanted to proceed because they had emotionally prepared for the scene. Just like in the film, the youth are their own support network. It highlighted the need for more mental health resources in the North.”
While there remain struggles in Kugluktuk, the community has done much healing since its darkest times. Much of this can be attributed to empowering youth, as like many Indigenous communities, youth form the vast majority of Nunavut’s population.
Other Inuit communities have found similar success through arts and other activities. In Igloolik, for example, a performing-arts collective called Artcirq provides a creative medium for young people to express themselves.
“It happened that it was sports, but the community just needed to take something and run with it,” said Aglok MacDonald. “The Grizzlies are still such a source of pride in Kugluktuk and I think many people in our community would say that was the spark that ignited that change in our tone.”