Every teacher hopes to have a positive impact on their students.
However, few have been the catalyst for community-wide change as Russ Sheppard has.
His lacrosse program transformed the lives of Inuit students in a small Arctic town struggling with high suicide rates, domestic violence, substance abuse and poverty.
Sheppard’s experience at Kugluktuk High School in Kugluktuk, Nunavut, was the inspiration for The Grizzlies, which opened the Reel Canadian Film Festival at Vogue Theatre in Fernie on Friday, January 25.
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Sheppard is now a lawyer with Rockies Law in Cranbrook and hosted a Q&A during the opening reception at The Arts Station following the screening.
He explained he was fresh out of the University of Saskatchewan and working at a pub when he landed his first teaching job in the north, recalling the phone interview that led to it.
“The principal started by saying ‘I want to let you know right now what you’re getting into if you take the job’,” he told the crowd gathered at The Arts Station.
“’We have great kids up here, but we have a hard life’… I was already intrigued. They offered me the job the next day and gave me 24 hours… I was a history/Canadian studies teacher, I knew nothing about this area of our country.”
Sheppard quickly discovered just how hard life in the Arctic can be.
In his second year at Kugluktuk, five students took their own lives, leaving him and his colleagues wondering what to do next as they neared the end of their contracts.
“I had nothing on the pros list,” he said.
“But I kind of just, with a couple of friends up there, realized nothing is going to change if somebody isn’t going to stay here.”
Sheppard returned to school the following July filled with fresh resolve to connect with his students.
He did this through lacrosse, a sport that lifted him from depression as a young athlete after an injury dashed his dreams of playing football.
“That was a game changer,” he said.
Sheppard started by opening the school gymnasium every evening to get students off the street before launching the lacrosse program.
Showing up for classes was a prerequisite for playing lacrosse, which boosted attendance from 23 per cent of 80 per cent or better in 2000 to 89 per cent two years later.
Sheppard ending up spending seven years at Kugluktuk before moving south and eventually retraining as a lawyer.
He revealed why he left teaching.
“I was spoiled in the north, totally spoiled, because I was able to do what I needed to do to impact students and connect with them, and when I came south I found that the system was actually restrictive on that and it frustrated me, to the point that I decided I’d go back to school,” he said.
The Grizzlies are still playing lacrosse and the program has been replicated in other indigenous communities across Canada.
Sheppard continues to coach the sport and remains in touch with his former students, many of whom have gone on to effect their own change in Kugluktuk, spearheading initiatives such as an alcohol committee to restrict access.
With difficult themes such as suicide, The Grizzlies is as confronting as it is uplifting and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when the lights came on at Vogue Theatre on Friday.
The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and went on to win Best Narrative Feature at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, also earning two other award nominations.
Sheppard believes one of the reasons the film is so successful is because director Miranda de Pencier immersed herself in the culture and community during its creation, training many of the students who appear in The Grizzlies.
Sheppard’s time in Kugluktuk was also transformational for him, teaching him humility and empathy – or as he puts it, to “get his head out of his ass”.
While the town no longer has the highest suicide rate in Canada, he admits there is still work to be done.
“Now all those kids I taught have kids and they’re teaching them the same values that were part of our program, and that’s how you effect change – it’s three generations long, it’s not going to happen overnight,” he said.