How lacrosse saved the Grizzlies: interview with Miranda de Pencier

Members of the Grizzlies lacrosse team. Courtesy Elevation Pictures

Interview with The Grizzlies director, Miranda de Pencier

By © Jane Freebury

There is an Indigenous hamlet in the far north of Canada that was once known as a community on the edge. Kugluktuk, with a population 1400, is located where the continent of North America meets the Arctic Ocean, and the northern Canadian archipelago begins to stretch into the frozen north.

It looks like an environment on the margins of human endurance, but that was not the reason it was in the news.

Early in the 2000s, the remote hamlet had one of the highest teenage suicide rates in North America. Until organised team sport among local youth turned that terrible situation around.

The story of this remarkable transformative event, the formation of an Inuit lacrosse team and the benefits to the community that cascaded from it, is the real-life backstory to The Grizzlies, a new Canadian drama directed by Miranda de Pencier.

The screenplay was in the hands of experienced screenwriters, Moira Walley-Beckett (Breaking Bad) and Graham Yost (Justified). They had plenty to work with.

Based on fact, The Grizzlies is about how lacrosse was re-introduced to an Inuit community when a young teacher, Russ Sheppard, in what has to be an act of desperation, introduced it to his students. None of them, except Miranda, was showing up for class.

After the team was established, youth suicide disappeared from the community for seven years, and to this day, the rate has remained low.

In fact, lacrosse originated as a First Nations sport. There are records that go back to at least the 17th century of North American tribes playing it. Lacrosse was also deployed to manage conflict and defuse violence, according to its strict rules. Perhaps not unlike makarrata among Australia’s Indigenous peoples.

In our interview on Zoom last week, de Pencier said that, ‘interestingly enough,’ as a young person she knew more about Australian Aboriginal and Maori history, through film and literature, than Canadian Indigenous history.

‘There was more awareness of the impact of colonialism in your part of the world. It hadn’t made its way into Canada, but that’s shifting and changing now.’

If Kugluktuk looks inhospitable, the ancestors of the people of Kugluktuk have been living in the region, hunting and fishing for eons. ‘At least 6,000 years’, as one member of the community says in the film.

The Grizzlies play lacrosse. Courtesy Elevation Pictures

How did the Kugluktuk community find itself in such a remote location, north of the Arctic Circle?

‘Well, it’s a huge topic. The Inuit were mostly nomadic peoples. They would move across the Arctic for hunting or trading…One of the ways the Canadian government tried to force Indigenous peoples into set locations was by slaughtering 60,000 sled dogs…. It immediately took away their means of transport.’

The production team for The Grizzlies enjoyed strong community participation from the Inuit community. Teacher Russ Sheppard is played by New Yorker Ben Schnetzer, but the cast is more than 90 percent Indigenous, while more than 30 percent of the crew behind the camera were also Indigenous.

Moreover, the real-life characters depicted here as students have gone on to prominent careers. The one student who continued to attend class, Miranda Atatahak, played in the film by Emerald MacDonald, is now a career development officer.

De Pencier has her own family connection with the vast Nunavut region where Kugluktuk is located. The black and white images of Indigenous life in the film’s opening photo montage were shot by her grandfather.

‘My grandfather was an Arctic explorer. He flew his seaplane across the Arctic and traded for the Hudson Bay Company.’

I ask about the residential schools that get occasional mention in her film. De Pencier says that even some of her native American friends hadn’t realised until recently that their parents were from residential schools.

suicide rates and health of the community is profoundly improved to this day

The Canadian residential school program was a network of boarding schools funded by the government and administered by Christian churches. Indigenous children were removed from their parents and communities and placed in these institutions in what has been called an act of cultural genocide. These schools were still in existence until the 1980s, the last closed in the 1990s.

It’s hard to talk about suicide rates, but where are things now? ‘It is heartbreaking and of course these things fluctuate. But for about seven years after the lacrosse team started there was zero suicide…The (suicide) rates and health of the community is profoundly improved to this day.’

‘The mayor of Kugluktuk says there aren’t any more drunk 12-year-olds wandering the streets.’

Many of the characters who are part of the Grizzlies story are now community leaders, in high level cultural institutions and positions of community leaderships. As they became the leaders they pushed for amazing cultural change.

Born and raised in Toronto, de Pencier is by definition a ‘southerner’, and as such unwelcome in the remote First Nation community that calls Kugluktuk home. How was making a film there possible, when outsiders from the cities of the south are deeply resented for the impact they have had historically on Indigenous lives.

It was a question of showing respect. How did she achieve that?

‘I really hadn’t spent time in an Indigenous community in any meaningful way and didn’t have any close Indigenous friends when I started this journey, so I had a huge learning curve. But there were definitely times when I’d reach out to Russ (Sheppard) when I felt in over my head. But I was way beyond a filmmaker and had to be a social worker as well.’ Kids were knocking on her door at 10 pm at night needing to discuss their issues at home.

it was like, who’s this crazy white lady and why is she telling this story?

As the kids started to open up with the truth of their stories, de Pencier began to feel the need to honour them and their stories.

Some Indigenous partners in the production, like co-producer Stacey (Aglok MacDonald) were reluctant to get on board in the beginning.

‘It was like, who’s this crazy white lady and why is she telling this story? I think the biggest thing is listening…The producer is pushy, making sure that people get things done, but I had to really be the opposite. …It was about getting people comfortable, to then share.

I’d like to think that at least in the Western world there’s collective awareness building on the fact that there’s lot of people who have been in control for a long time. With movements like Black Lives Matter there is coming reflection and time to learn to be quiet and listen to each other. We should just stand back.’

The students Kugluktuk are now  attending school, more or less? Eighty percent of them, four days a week?

‘Well, there is this idea of school being the be all and end all, but there is as much pride in building skills, hunting skills…and frankly sometimes need to go hunting to keep their family alive. Yes, school is good, but it’s more complicated than that.’

A version of this interview was first published in the Canberra Times on 20 March 2021