Esterhazy’s Russ Sheppard is the real-life teacher from the movie “The Grizzlies”

A movie had its local premier on Friday night in Esterhazy’s Maple Leaf Theatre. It didn’t attract a full house on that evening, but it was still well-attended, with an audience comprising all ages from schoolkids to seniors. During the movie it was obvious that some people were moved by what they saw, and as the end credits rolled, a man took to the stage.

The house lights came back on, and the man stood before the audience in a relaxed pose. His humble manner reflected the casual attire he wore. You could walk by him in the street and see just an ordinary guy, for that’s what he is. And yet, he’s an ordinary man who became the catalyst for extraordinary change, a man who shows us what a difference any of us can make if we encourage others. He’s the man in the real-life back story to the sensational movie “The Grizzlies.” He is Esterhazy’s own Russ Sheppard.

Russ is humble, and is very quick to lessen his personal role in changing a community, but that’s what he did, albeit indirectly. After graduating as a teacher, Russ found himself in the remote and desolate Inuit town of Kugluktuk, located north of the Arctic Circle in Nunavut. He was there to teach history, there to explore his new career for the first time, and yet it was he who received an education.

Kugluktuk had one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and the young people were demotivated and despairing. While being a whole generation apart from the hideous mistreatment of residential schools, they were still carrying the generational memories and scars passed on by parents who lived that disgusting blot on Canada’s history. After decades of false hopes and broken promises, the sense of hopelessness was pervasive. Russ saw this malaise reflected in his students. They were generally disinterested in education, given to the temptations of drugs and alcohol, and all-too-often ripped apart emotionally by yet another suicide from their own numbers.

The movie portrays this aspect of the story in a way that pulls no punches. It begins with a suicide, and it’s not the last one depicted. It also shows the emotional impact of these tragic events, and adds to the mix the parental abuse, extreme poverty, and starvation sometimes experienced in northern communities that have been forgotten by southern society. It’s not a feel-good movie, it doesn’t even have a fairy-tale ending, and yet it is powerful, emotional, and hauntingly-encouraging.

In real-life, and in the movie, Russ introduced the students to the sport of Lacrosse. It was an uphill battle to begin with, where he fought both student disinterest, and resistance from within the academic administration. He also had to contend with community pressure, as the after-school activity could conflict with the domestic responsibilities some students were expected to undertake. Never-the-less, Russ and his fellow teachers persisted, and the students began to rally to the activities. As more of them became involved, they discovered emotions they hadn’t felt for a long time… genuine fun, purpose, camaraderie, and a sense of hope. The sports activity was drawing these qualities out from within the young people, and Russ became the champion and cheerleader for what these young people were becoming.

Additionally, academic attendance was growing. It was made a condition for playing the sport. Of this Russ says, “When we saw attendance in the school on the rise, we realized as a group that we had some energy and culture change happening. We needed to keep working hard for these kids who were working for themselves. The catalyst was the commitment of the kids to change themselves, and a group of adults who believed that the kids deserved more.”

Eventually, through great perseverance on the part of all concerned, the team (now known as The Grizzlies), went to Toronto and played in the Lacrosse nationals. No, they did not become the champions of the event, but they were already winners, each and every one of them, because of how far they had come. And then the story of the team began to get out in the media, and to cut a long story short, more than a decade later the movie was in the works. It would eventually feature people from Kugluktuk itself, with scenes being filmed on location, and the genuine raw emotions of the actors being captured on film.

There is of course a degree of creative license in the movie, as with all theatrical productions. Having said that, it does accurately represent the essence of the experience. Thankfully, it stays away from the temptation to present Russ as a “white savior”, and does not show sports activity as being the catch-all solution for societal change. Instead it reflects some basic truths that movie-goers would be wise to think about.

1. Russ is an ordinary man who became a catalyst for extraordinary change. Put it another way, Russ did not change anyone, rather he created an environment in which change was encouraged.

2. The sport did not change anyone. It was but a tool within the environment that was being created.

3. The change came from within the students. The environment of encouragement, combined with the use of the tools, led those young people to find the hidden qualities that were already resident within them. As they themselves expressed those qualities, they changed their lives.

As those young people grew into adulthood, they took those changes and brought them back to the community, with some of them now holding responsible positions in local government, and in the education system in the north.

This is the essential message of the movie, as well as the underlying message of the real experience. While the specific locational/historical experience may not be transportable, the essential human experience is.

Russ is not a super hero, he is an example of what anyone can do if they are willing to do it. He found a way to encourage others to find their own greatness within, and if Russ could do it, so can you and I.

Creating an environment for growth does not begin with massive change. It can be as simple as giving an encouraging word, or reaching out a helping hand. And once received, that moment of human kindness can become a spark that leads to a fire, and that fire can set a whole community ablaze with life-changing potential.

This is why the movie is hauntingly powerful. Its message is not about Russ or even the students of Kugluktuk, it’s about all of us, in every community. It is a reminder of the good we can all do, and the greatness we can all express, if we make the decision to do it.

Of the experience, Russ says, “It was a very life changing experience working with some of the kids, and characters I did. And if I could summarize it, things happened the way they were supposed to happen. I was able to learn a lot of good lessons, and create some good relationships and skills through that adventure. It allowed me to understand that the human spirit is a pretty amazing thing, and there’s a whole world out there of perseverance that will allow people to reach a new target and goal.”

The movie will continue to play at Maple Leaf Theatre on June 2nd and 4th at 7:15pm. You can watch the official trailer below. Russ is now a corporate lawyer in Cranbrook, BC, and he still coaches Lacrosse.