How to Make a Movie in the North

The Grizzlies is about a lacrosse team that transformed one Nunavut community. But it's also about Inuit leading the way

A group of lacrosse players sitting on a bench.
Courtesy of Mongrel Media

This article contains discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know is having a suicide crisis please call the Canada Suicide Prevention Service (1-833-456-4566), that offers 24/7 support. There is also the Kids Help Phone, the First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Help Line, and 1-866-APPELLE (Quebec residents). You may also call the Kamatsiaqtut Help Line to speak to someone in English or Inuktitut at 1-800-265-3333.

Picture your classic sports drama. The new coach meets his ragtag athletes at an underprivileged school and sets out to reform them through the miracle of sport. Cue the montage of painful drills, some tender moments, a dash of comic relief, and the sweat-soaked breakthrough. Coach and kids overcome their differences, triumph over their privileged prep-school contenders, and win the championship.

The Grizzlies was almost that. The film, which premiered at TIFF in 2018 and had its nationwide release in April, tells the true story of a lacrosse team from Kugluktuk, a hamlet on the Arctic coast in northwestern Nunavut. It’s 2004, and Russ Sheppard, a history teacher who’s both new to teaching and new to the North, lands in the town of about 1,000 with a few duffle bags and his prized lacrosse stick.

After a disastrous first week of class—one of the students punches him—he’s puzzled at the kids’ seeming indifference toward school. In time, though, he learns that it’s his own attitude that must change. In a territory with one of the highest suicide rates in the country, the experiences of young people are inevitably linked to personal tragedy—and, for many of his students, class participation and homework are among the least of their concerns. Some of them have to help care for their younger siblings. Some endure domestic violence. Others don’t have enough to eat. And some Sheppard loses to suicide.

Aside from activities on the land, such as hunting, and working in the artists’ studio, there’s little for the kids to do in town. The community hockey rink is out of order; the building is used mainly for meetings and dances. In the evenings, Sheppard sees some of the kids hang out in front of the co-op—and a few are visibly intoxicated. Against this backdrop, Sheppard decides to introduce an extracurricular lacrosse program to the school. He begins to recruit some of the kids he initially clashes with, and as the athletes grow to enjoy the sport, their class attendance improves. But when Sheppard asks the town for funding to help send the lacrosse team to a national championship in Toronto, he faces stiff resistance from key community members. Their reluctance, they insist, is not unfounded: many, including the school principal, are tired of transient outsiders imposing their ways on Inuit and expecting gratitude and accolades in return.

In some ways, Sheppard’s story parallels Miranda de Pencier’s journey in making The Grizzlies. Ten years ago, de Pencier, an actor and producer, came across an ESPN clip about a small Arctic community with a high suicide rate. The clip claimed the community was transformed through lacrosse and that, in the four years after Sheppard formed the Grizzlies, the town’s suicides dropped to zero. (That statistic is only partly true; the number dropped to zero in some of the first few years following the creation of the Grizzlies team.) Like Sheppard, de Pencier would eventually learn that her understanding of the community was limited. But it took meeting some of the original Grizzlies to come to that realization.

In 2009, she flew to Kugluktuk to ask Miranda Atatahak, Adam Kikpak, and Kyle Aviak, who were among the first kids involved in the Grizzlies, for permission to use their life stories in a screenplay. (They are now grown up, with their own families and careers: Aviak works at a diamond-mining company and is studying to be a police officer, Kikpak runs Kugluktuk’s athletic centre, and Atatahak is the town’s deputy mayor.) All three told her about how lacrosse changed their lives—and the entire town.

It was then that de Pencier understood that while she may have had the technical expertise to make the film, she had only an outsider’s perspective of the community; the Grizzlies’ story was not hers to tell. Knowing she would need to collaborate with Inuit to capture the community’s perspective, de Pencier eventually partnered with Stacey Aglok MacDonald and Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, both prominent filmmakers. And she soon learned that for them and for many people who live in Kugluktuk, the story of the Grizzlies is a deeply personal one. Aglok MacDonald, who graduated from high school in 2000, is from Kugluktuk and witnessed the early years of the Grizzlies lacrosse team. Two of her younger sisters have been part of the Grizzlies. Another one of her sisters would end up starring in the movie. Aglok MacDonald and Arnaquq-Baril, who lives in Iqaluit, have both lost loved ones to suicide.

Aglok MacDonald and Arnaquq-Baril taught de Pencier that to make a movie in Nunavut, and to do it well, they had to build something far bigger than the movie itself. And much like, say, a high-school lacrosse program, their project would succeed only if Inuit led the way.

The film’s title sequence shows grainy footage of Inuit communities—some of it shot by de Pencier’s grandfather, a fur trader for the Hudson’s Bay Company who flew planes in the Arctic in the 1920s and 1930s—followed by footage and photos of stone-faced students in residential schools, kneeling in prayer and sitting at their desks. The establishing shot brings us to modern-day Nunavut, a landscape unchanged from the opening sequence but now featuring a young man carrying a rifle across a snow-dusted outcrop, closely followed by a dog, while a plane flies overhead. The boy sits down, pulls his dog close and then pushes her away, tossing rocks at her until she bounds off. He then holds the gun against his throat. The camera cuts away at the sound of the gunshot that ends his life—but, as those earlier images suggest, the trigger may have been pulled long before he was born.

When he first lands in Kugluktuk, Sheppard, played by Ben Schnetzer, knows nothing of the youth suicides that plague the community. One of his new colleagues, Mike Johnston (played by Will Sasso), drives him around town, peppering his introductory tour with cynical remarks (“How come you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel?” he asks Sheppard, suggesting nobody would choose to move to Kugluktuk). When Sheppard learns of the town’s high youth suicide rate, he wonders what the community has done to address it. “Nothing that works,” says Johnston, implicitly placing blame on Inuit for not doing more to prevent suicide—and seemingly forgetting the role colonialism has played. Sheppard seems to accept Johnston’s explanation. But, over the course of the film, as the students and community members directly challenge his assumptions, Sheppard’s prejudices slowly unravel.

The Grizzlies might have been filmed and received very differently had it been made even a decade ago, when de Pencier initially learned about the Kugluktuk Grizzlies. “When I first started working on this movie” in 2010, said de Pencier in a recent interview, “this country was not talking about reconciliation and decolonization.”

“Not people outside of Indigenous communities,” Arnaquq-Baril corrected.

“Even when we did, we didn’t have a lot of the words,” Aglok MacDonald added. Growing up, she said, she hadn’t been aware of the extent to which the experience of residential school had affected her family—particularly her mother. “It just seemed so normal that I didn’t think that it was a thing,” she said. “And, of course, my mother wasn’t going into the deep-seated trauma of it.”

For many Inuit, this reluctance began to change during the course of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which sought to document the trauma residential-school students endured for decades. Residential-school survivors and their family members shared their memories, often for the first time, of their experiences. In their attempts to force Indigenous communities to both abandon their traditions and assimilate into the country’s dominant culture, the Canadian government and the church separated families, sent children away from their communities, and punished them for speaking their ancestral languages. Many students suffered from physical and sexual abuse.

Though residential schools no longer operate in the North, there are other ways that ostensibly promising educational opportunities, introduced by outsiders, can continue to do damage. Like Sheppard and his colleague Johnston, whose character is based on a teacher who still lives in the North today, most teachers in Nunavut, said Aglok MacDonald, are not from there; they usually move north for only a few years. ome visiting teachers or artists launch singular extracurricular programs that discontinue once they leave. “They don’t take the time to build up capacity in the community itself,” she said. “It’s very dangerous, because all of a sudden you have youth that want something and are craving for something that…doesn’t feel possible anymore.”

The real Russ Sheppard moved to Kugluktuk in 1998, founded the Grizzlies in 2001, and left four years after that, but the Grizzlies program far outlasted him. What started as a lacrosse league expanded to include an arcade and a takeout restaurant, so students who weren’t athletically inclined could get involved in management roles. And all of their activities continue to be student led.

Arnaquq-Baril and Aglok MacDonald insisted that, for the film production, they needed to not only recruit Inuit for the crew but also train them to be able to produce original work. When it came time to cast The Grizzlies, for example, the filmmakers organized two arts workshops for youth as part of the audition process so that the kids who weren’t cast could still walk away with a valuable experience, as well as the skills to launch their own projects.

Toward the end of one of the workshops, which included sessions on things such as drum dancing, throat singing, and mask dancing, de Pencier sat in a circle with the participants and asked what they felt would be a helpful takeaway for them. She assumed they would request similar, ongoing arts workshops in their home communities—the same way Sheppard assumes the kids he’s teaching simply need something to fill their time.

But, as the participants took turns to speak, it became clear that they had all had experience with suicide in their lives. The legacy of residential schools includes high rates of substance abuse and suicide, not just among those who were forced to attend but among the generations that have followed too. And, though the TRC has helped some Inuit speak more openly about topics long considered taboo, younger generations—those who were born after the last residential schools finally closed—have had few opportunities to voice their own trauma in a safe space. As the workshop participants took turns to speak, they articulated what de Pencier was only beginning to understand: what they really wanted were more dedicated spaces to openly talk about their struggles. “They all started to chant, ‘New start, new start,’” said de Pencier. “And I just watched one of the most profound moments I’ve ever witnessed in my life.”

The filmmakers decided to adapt that moment into a scene in the movie in which members of Sheppard’s lacrosse team gather to mourn a suicide in the community. It marks another turning point for Sheppard, who grapples with the shock of youth suicides in the community and wonders, more than once, how he can possibly comfort those left behind.

The kids’ heartfelt outpouring in the workshop informed “not just the story itself but how we made the movie,” said Arnaquq-Baril. From then on, the filmmakers ensured mental-health workers were on either on set or on call, so they were available to cast and crew. They worked with organizations such as the Embrace Life Council, a Nunavut-based nonprofit that delivers suicide-prevention education-and-training programs, to learn core principles when it comes to talking about suicide, including not referring to the act as “committing suicide”—“because it’s not a crime,” said Arnaquq-Baril.

The week they were scheduled to film the scene inspired by the workshop, there were two fatal tragedies in the territory. Several mental-health workers in the town were dispatched to help those immediately affected, leaving the film crew with no professional mental-health support. “We were ready to cancel,” said Arnaquq-Baril. “It was actually the youth who said, ‘No, we’ve been emotionally preparing for this, and we feel we’re ready to do this now.’” They had a group discussion, she said. “And I remember explaining that this is why we’re making this movie. Because we need more mental-health support and we need more infrastructure up here.”

That evening, after shooting, the filmmakers sensed that three of the youth were more withdrawn. With no mental-health workers on set, they decided to drive the kids to the hospital so they could speak with a doctor as a precaution.

“They didn’t think they needed it,” said Arnaquq-Baril. “But we were like, ‘No, we’re going.’”

In the film, Sheppard’s perspective begins to shift thanks to the gentle guidance of Miranda Atatahak, played by Emerald MacDonald, Aglok MacDonald’s sister. When Sheppard fails to start a lacrosse team on his own, Atatahak instructs him on how to draw kids to the sport. When Sheppard enrolls his team in a championship in Toronto, Atatahak leads the fundraising campaign to help fly the kids south to compete and helps persuade community leaders to support the team’s efforts. (In real life, Russ Sheppard and the Grizzlies were not successful in getting community funding, though they were eventually able to pool together enough sponsorship money to reach the championships in Winnipeg. “We had to learn that not everybody embraces change,” says Sheppard in a phone interview, recalling their rejection. “We got taught lessons on how to approach things.”)

But when Sheppard berates a player for not trying hard enough at a game in the community’s lacrosse league and later assumes that player is skipping practice out of laziness, the typically shy teen finally raises her voice.

“We Inuit love this land because we can see for miles,” she says. “We notice every little thing. But you? You only see right here.” She holds her sealskin mitten close to Sheppard’s face. She explains that the absent student is not skipping school and lacrosse practice out of apathy; his family is starving, and he has to go out on the land to hunt. “All of us,” she says, “have made sacrifices to be here.”

While The Grizzlies may have all the trappings of a sports drama, the story is not about a coach who changes kids’ lives by fostering discipline and team spirit. It’s about the coach learning why the kids are struggling in the first place—and how people like him can, whether knowingly or not, exacerbate those struggles when they try to influence a culture they barely understand.

Since its TIFF premiere, the film has become an educational reference for a number of audiences and organizations. It’s been shown at the RCMP station in Iqaluit, and it’s been suggested the film be used to educate everyone from new recruits to health care workers in northern communities. With input from suicide-prevention specialists, Aglok MacDonald and Arnaquq-Baril are developing an education package based on the film, in part, says Arnaquq-Baril, “to teach teachers to not make themselves indispensable to a community if they’re not planning to stick around.”

Aglok MacDonald and Arnaquq-Baril helped steer The Grizzlies in a more favourable direction: at every stage of the production, they insisted on finding ways to develop talent among Inuit. They helped train actors, technicians, and other film crew in Nunavut. Together with de Pencier, Aglok MacDonald and Arnaquq-Baril also developed their skills in the short films Throat Song (2013) and Aviliaq: Entwined (2014), both of which they worked on when production of The Grizzlies was stalled. De Pencier even grew her own talent: The Grizzlies was her feature-film directorial debut. The three filmmakers’ approach may offer a model for future large-scale projects in the North.

“Teachers or doctors or even mental-health workers come and go,” Arnaquq-Baril told a packed audience, at least half of whom were Inuit, after a screening in Ottawa in early May. “But we’re still here. And we can be a support to each other in our community.”

Samia Madwar
Samia Madwar is the managing editor of The Walrus.