Feature film ‘The Grizzlies’ chronicles how UAlberta Law alumnus helped Inuit youth

    Community plagued by high rate of teen suicide found hope through lacrosse

    By Helen Metella on November 15, 2018

    The true experience of a Faculty of Law alumnus in a troubled Arctic community has been made into a Hollywood-style feature film.

    The Grizzlies is based on the seven years that Russ Sheppard, '13 JD, was a high school teacher in the territory of Nunavut, where the rate of teenage suicide topped crisis levels at the turn of the millennium. Sheppard started a lacrosse league for teens that helped turn that dire situation around for one of its tiny communities.

    “I have very mixed emotions, because it’s not a (fictional) story,” said Sheppard, when the film anchored the opening gala of the Edmonton International Film Festival in September, after debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival, earlier in the month. “A number of us lived a good part of that story, so you have a lot of different emotions: excitement and nervousness and guilt and happiness.”

    A few years after his life-changing experience in the North, Sheppard earned a law degree at UAlberta Law and was called to the British Columbia bar in 2014. He now practises real estate and business law in Cranbrook, B.C.

    The movie recounts how Nunavut had one of the highest suicide rates in North America in 1998, when Sheppard arrived to teach in the hamlet of Kugluktuk, located in western Nunavut at the mouth of the Coppermine River.

    The sense of hopelessness that plagued its Inuit youth was partially due to how many of their parents and grandparents had suffered in Indian Residential Schools. Alcoholism, domestic violence and poor school attendance was causing unemployment, poverty, broken families and mental health issues.

    By playing lacrosse, a precursor to hockey that was invented by the First Nations of North America in the 1700s, the teens found an outlet for their emotions, found a purpose and formed close bonds with each other.

    “For the Six Nations, where lacrosse started, it’s a medicine game, it’s a game of healing,” said Sheppard, who learned to play while he was an undergrad at the University of Saskatchewan.

    “You can lose yourself in the game, you can build character through the game. But most of all, you have a family around you.”

    The movie was co-written by Hollywood-based Canadian screenwriter Graham Yost (who wrote the movie Speed and the TV series Justified and Band of Brothers), and features Gemini Award-winning actress Tantoo Cardinal, American actor Ben Schnetzer (The Book Thief) and an array of First Nation youth in major roles.

    It has also played the Vancouver, Calgary and Yellowknife film festivals, in addition to those in Edmonton and Toronto. It is scheduled for theatrical release in the spring of 2019.