Meet Kyle Aviak, a young man born in Kugluktuk, a hamlet near the end of the world on the south shore of the Northwest Passage who is alive today because of a game called lacrosse.
During the years 1987 to 1997, Kugluktuk was the suicide capital of Canada.
In those years, 15 people committed suicide, five of them teenagers.
That is not counting the numerous suicidal attempts.
Rarely a week would go by without someone wanting to end their life. Suicide had become the accepted way of dealing with problems in that community. And Kugluktuk had more than its share of serious problems than most other communities in our country.
Kyle grew up in a household where he had to witness how his father regularly beat up his mother in front of him and his siblings. The same situation often existed in the homes of his neighbors. The frequent drunken violence affected him deeply and he made a few unsuccessful suicidal attempts. The social circumstances were such that he did not feel that life had any promise for him and he would be better off dead.
Much of the violence and abuse was a direct result of the residential school program. While I was working in Kugluktuk, I met a middle-aged woman who never knew her mother and did not get to meet her father until she was 18. She had been abused by the nuns, who beat her for the slightest transgression, such as the writing exactly on the lined paper.
Upon her return to Kugluktuk, she became an alcoholic like so many of her contemporaries, and like them led a life of violence and drunken stupor.
Fortunately, when I met her, she had been sober for 12 years after joining AA and had turned her life around. She told me that quite a few of her fellow residential school survivors had finally dealt with the fallout of the years of abuse.
Kyle happened to be one of the late victims of that dreadful episode in Canadian history.
In 1998, a new teacher, Russ Shepperd, arrived in Kugluktuk to teach at the high school. The dropout rate was something he had never imagined possible. Substance abuse was rampant, and there was little or no parental support and many students suffered from low mental and physical fitness. School attendance was 24 per cent in the year 2000.
The turning point for Mr. Shepperd was the morning that he came to school and found another empty desk because the student had committed suicide. That was the third time in a span of five months. That is when he started the Kugluktuk high school athletics association and enticed 100 students to become members of the Kugluktuk Grizzlies. He offered an opportunity to participate in sponsored sports and recreation activities through the school, motivating students to stay in school and make healthy lifestyles choices. Indoor soccer teams for boys and girls helped create a sense of team spirit and a desire to do better. Membership also offered employment opportunities.
Nobody had ever heard about the game of lacrosse before in Kugluktuk. Mr. Shepperd organized the acquisition of a sufficient number of lacrosse sticks and encouraged students who participated to never let go of the sticks, to have them with them while walking from school to home, to have them next to them while having a meal at home, to take them to bed.
Mr. Shepperd then built a team that went to the nationals in Winnipeg. They did not win a single game there, but they all felt that they had accomplished a lot, belonged to a team, that they were there for each other and had a lot of fun in the process.
Kyle had become the star of the team and he got rid of his anger and despondency. He also became an inspiration for his younger sister, who recently participated in the indoor soccer competition in Whitehorse.
There were no more teenage suicides.
To be sure, belonging to the high school athletics association involved much more than playing sports. The aim was to get at least 80 per cent attendance in school and markedly improve graduation rates. There were performance logs rating effort and behavior, rather than pure academic performance. The students got to participate in tournaments and travel to other places; they had various training clinics and student exchanges. At the end of the every school year there is a large ceremony during which students receive awards and are honored for their outstanding lifestyle, exemplary attendance, most improved students.
School attendance rose from 24 to 60 per cent in three years and I’m told it is better than 80 per cent currently. All of this is the work of a single teacher who was able to inspire students to pursue success rather than accept failure.
• For those who want to know more, see and hear Kyle’s story on You Tube and the Kugluktuk Grizzlies.
Dr. Marco Terwiel is a retired family physician who lives in Maple Ridge.