Kugluktuk, A True (North) Sport Leader

When Russ Sheppard arrived in the northern community of Kugluktuk, Nunavut, he was somewhat unprepared for the many challenges he would face as a teacher at Kugluktuk High School. An alarmingly low attendance rate, drug and alcohol abuse, and youth violence were only some of the issues his students and the community were grappling with.

Today, KHS is a different place. Groups of children carry their lacrosse sticks wherever they go in hopes of a casual pick-up game and inside the ‘Grizzly Den’,  kids are enjoying the warmth and safety of a place all their own - a flourishing student-run arcade. School attendance has drastically improved, which, in turn, has led to a significantly higher graduation rate. Youth violence has noticeably decreased, and the incidence of teen depression seems to be in check while the suicide rate has plummeted. So what accounts for all these positive changes? A program aptly titled the Kugluktuk High School Athletics Association, or KHSAA.

With the support and encouragement of other teachers and coaches, Sheppard developed a simple correlation between sports activities and academics: to be allowed to play on the school’s new lacrosse team you have to put in a visible effort in school. This simple concept turned out to be a brilliant idea. The students clamoured to sign up for the opportunity to try a new sport and were happy to maintain their attendance level to do so. The rest is history, and the numbers speak for themselves. Some KHS graduates have even gone on to pursue post-secondary education – a path that was much less accessible only a few years ago. The higher attendance rates have led to a greater enthusiasm for higher learning.

A program that started with only 18 students now extends to more than half of the school’s population. KHSAA has been successful both on and off the field in part because it has been guided principally by the needs of the students. “The kids need to feel it is their own program,” explains Sheppard, “and good leaders know how to do this. For an endeavour like this, you really need the passion. This isn’t just a job for us.”

Of course, funding for athletics programs is always limited, but Sheppard and his colleagues hit the jackpot when they conceived the idea for the Grizzly Den arcade. Not only are the student employees getting paid a fair and empowering wage, but the profits go directly to the KHSAA. New sports equipment and even out of town tournaments are often subsidized by these funds. “The business turned a profit very quickly,” says Sheppard. In fact, the funds are sometimes distributed to other burgeoning school programs such as the music or art programs.

The students continued to come up with creative fundraising ideas, and the community has rallied around them. Business sponsors from the area have been very helpful. It seems the positive changes in the youth population of Kugluktuk have impacted the entire community. “The community followed the lead of their youth,” Sheppard asserts. As the program’s success became evident, community support naturally followed.

Having played sports as a child, Russ Sheppard was no stranger to the athletic world and understood its importance in the growth and development of youth. “Sports give you the sense of a team. We wanted to give the Kugluktuk youth this experience and improve the overall quality of their lives.” The KHSAA has provided the students with unique opportunities such as travelling to other cities, competing in events such as the Arctic Winter Games and gaining exposure to, and knowledge of, other cultures – knowledge they bring back home to share with the rest of the community.

The program has continued to evolve to address the needs of the students and the community. To address the ever present issue of teacher and coach turnover – a challenge for most northern communities – KHSAA has developed a coach mentorship program to help experienced Grizzly athletes develop into coaches. This initiative is helping to build capacity within the community and to ensure that the program can prosper for years to come.

The KHSAA program has also reached out within the community through the creation of the Cubs Program at the elementary school. This satellite program promotes staying in school and healthy lifestyles to the younger children in the community and provides opportunities for the KHSAA Grizzlies to demonstrate their new found leadership skills. With their role models at the helm, the grade 4-6 students are excited to join Team Grizzly.

The Grizzlies have further partnered with other northern communities such as Diavik and Wha Ti to share their learnings and to help them develop their own program. There is no doubt that True Sport lives in Kugluktuk and the community is doing its best to “grow” True Sport across Nunavut.