The Toronto International Film Festival is always brimming with glitz and glamour, but what struck Nunavut actor Paul “Ike” Nutarariaq most was the genuine warmth and friendliness of so many celebrities.

Paul “Ike” Nutarariaq, centre, poses alongside The Grizzlies co-stars Booboo Stewart, left, and Fred Bailey, right, at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film premiered on Sept. 8.
photo courtesy of Paul “Ike” Nutarariaq

“They really want to get to know who you are and what kind of life experiences you have… they really had a very deep interest in what it was like up in the North,” Nutarariaq said. “It really was a phenomenal experience as an Inuit actor… to go to TIFF was really amazing.”

He was at the film festival on Sept. 8 for the premiere of The Grizzlies, a based-on-a-true-story film about how a lacrosse program helped prevent suicides in Kugluktuk. He plays the role of Zach, a troubled teenager who looks after his younger brother as their parents struggle with addiction.

“I played a character who’s very interested in lacrosse and bettering himself. He’s willing to work hard for something that he loves, and that was lacrosse,” he said. “He’s a very defiant young man but he reached for something (better). It was a positive thing.”

There’s an intersection with Inuit culture throughout the movie as well, he noted.

“There’s this one specific scene where this elder stands up for how we have to adapt and to make the best of life in certain situations that we’re facing now,” he said. “That’s one of the most important, key points in Inuit culture is to adapt and overcome.”

The subsequent discussions he had after the Toronto screening of The Grizzlies reached a “very deep emotional level,” he added.

Mental health isn’t an issue that Nutarariaq is content to address only on the big screen. He recently enrolled in a community service worker program. Although he’s determined to thrive in the entertainment industry, the 25-year-old, who grew up in Iglulik and Iqaluit but is now a resident of St. Isadore, Ont., is equipping himself with more skills to assist others.

“Whether I keep acting or not, I definitely want to bring that message out that we should all make an effort to focus on (mental health) and build on that,” he said. “If I’m doing film, I would like to do film that focuses on betterment and whatnot, keeping the idea of Indigenous peoples’ resilience, their ingenuity, their perseverance. That’s something I like.”

Besides doing the rounds with media in Toronto – Nutarariaq completed nine interviews in one day – and attending an event promoting women in film, he was able to again converse with veteran Indigenous Canadian actress Tantoo Cardinal, who also appears in The Grizzlies.

“She’s done over 100 projects,” he said. “To finally be able to meet her and work with her, I started to remember all these shows on TV that she was part of, and that was really amazing.”

It was a busy summer for Nutarariaq as he finished work in Newfoundland on season two of the CBC TV series Little Dog – about a Canadian boxer – shortly before TIFF. He also got married in late August. He and his agent are lining up more projects for the future, he added.

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