A story spotlighting Indigenous issues in northern Canada is making its way to the big screen, even kicking off this year’s Edmonton International Film Festival.
‘The Grizzlies’ is based on the true story of Russ Sheppard, who moved to Kugluktuk, in what is now Nunavut, to work as a teacher in 1998.
The small hamlet is struggling with high suicide rates, alcoholism and the trauma of residential schools. So Sheppard introduces the game of lacrosse, which brings students and, ultimately, the community together.
Sheppard, who was in Edmonton for the movie screening, said his best experience was developing relationships with the students, getting to know their strengths and where they came from.
“We had really high expectations on the kids for things like attendance and work ethic. The kids were more than capable of meeting those and did, and once they did, we always said success breeds success,” he said.
“They started to have some success and realized what they were doing was working. They continued down that path and then it became infectious throughout the school.”
Director Miranda de Pencier said she first heard about the story through news articles about the school’s lacrosse team, the Grizzlies.
“I was really moved by the story of these kids who were banding together and finding inspiration through sport,” she said.
“I just looked at what these kids did, the power of resilience and what they were able to overcome and it was really inspiring.”
De Pencier said film crews auditioned more than 600 kids all over the Arctic Circle for the movie and said the experience of directing in the North was life-changing.
“I knew nothing about the North. I’d never been to the Arctic. Spending time there, making friends and understanding what these kids are going through, and they’re still able to find their way through, is extraordinary,” she said.
“Working on this film has taught me a lot about resilience. I got the experience of working with youth who are existing and living with a lot of trauma and still finding a way through that.”
Ricky Marty-Pahtayken is from Frog Lake, Alta. and plays the character Adam in the movie. Marty-Pahtayken is Plains Cree and said he appreciated bringing light to the issues in the film.
“It needs to be told. People need to be educated,” he said.
“We’re looking at it differently from a lot of people. We’re not just alcoholics and [have] substance abuse. We’re working through our traumas.”
Filming the movie in Iqaluit was the first time Marty-Pahtayken had ever been in the North.
“For myself, I didn’t know what our neighbours go through up North, Being there, seeing everything, I think everybody in Canada should see what they’ve been through.”
Sheppard admits he didn’t think his experience was film worthy at the time, but said it was exciting to see his story taken to the big screen.
“There’s always a bit of nerves. I’m dealing with some very serious issues and I’m dealing with some kids that really trusted all of us to ensure the proper story was told,” he said.
Sheppard hopes viewers get the message that young people can achieve great things.
“As adults, we have to embrace that. We have to create and work with them to environments so they can excel. Once they excel, they become role models for youth underneath them,” he said.
De Pencier thinks the movie has a story that affects many people.
“Even though it’s about Kugluktuk and it’s a smaller community, all of us are affected by issues of trauma and alcoholism and challenges in life. The themes are global.”