Opinion

Tony Kalluk's story offers hope for hardened criminals, and raises questions

'There are no monsters up there. That's what I tell people when they ask me about my career as a criminal defence lawyer in Nunavut,' writes Malcolm Kempt in his review of Piksuk Media's award-winning documentary, 'Tony: Back from the Brink.'

'Tony: Back from the Brink' is refreshing and genuine, writes guest columnist Malcolm Kempt

Tony Kalluk's tale of redemption offers hope in a place where hope seems to be in short supply, writes criminal lawyer Malcolm Kempt in his review of Piksuk Media's award-winning documentary, 'Tony: Back from the Brink.' (Piksuk Media)
  • CBC North is hosting a public screening of the documentary Tony: Back from the Brink at Northern United Place in Yellowknife April 27 at 7 p.m., to be followed by a panel discussion. Public screenings are also being planned in Iqaluit and Whitehorse. 

There are no monsters up there. That's what I tell people when they ask me about my career as a criminal defence lawyer in Nunavut.

In over a decade of flying in and out of the territory's isolated communities, I've seen the aftermath of many heinous crimes — mothers burning their children with cigarettes, home-invasion rapes, kids torturing animals, domestic assaults that end in death — and I've spent a lot of time in confined spaces talking with the people who committed them.

Nunavut has one of the highest violent crime rates per capita in the world, but I've met very few criminals who are wholly unredeemable.

Tony, middle, stands with his sister Vera and brother Ben, who also appear in the film. (Mike Jaypoody/Piksuk Media)

Most of them are severely damaged people who in turn damage others around them, lashing out senselessly in a never-ending cycle of violence. Substance abuse, untreated mental illness and a complete lack of resources to cope with these problems further complicate people's lives in the communities. Hope seems in short supply.

But there is hope.

Early in Mike Jaypoody's award-winning documentary, Tony: Back from the Brink, the subject of the film, Tony Kalluk, stands shirtless in front of a hanging backdrop.

His body is covered with scars and crude prison tattoos — a huge tarantula on one side of his neck, a scorpion on the other, a flayed skull on his chest and an inverted cross between his eyebrows. He points to a winged, horned creature inked on his lower back and says, "That's who I replaced God with for a while — the devil himself."

In the film, Kalluk points to a winged, horned creature inked on his lower back and says, 'That's who I replaced God with for a while — the devil himself.' (Piksuk Media)

He's an Inuk version of Max Cady, Robert DeNiro's character from Cape Fear, but unlike the homicidal sociopath of that film, Kalluk is a man reformed and redeemed. He has returned to his home community of Clyde River, a remote hamlet of roughly 1,000 people on the east coast of Baffin Island, after a lifetime of incarceration and violence to become an unlikely counsellor for those desperately in need.

Suicide by cop

The turning point for Kalluk came when a drug-fuelled crime spree ended with him charging a lone RCMP officer with two butcher knives in an attempt to commit "suicide by cop."

It's a phrase that I have heard over and over in my time in the North. Desperate people in armed standoffs screaming to be shot by the police.

Jaypoody masterfully captures this incredibly tense event with a single video freeze-frame of the event overlaid with audio of Kalluk's death threats and commentary from Kalluk and the police officer involved.

Director Mike Jaypoody never portrays Kalluk as a victim. (Robert Kautuk/Piksuk Media)

RCMP Cst. Michael Jeffrey (now the commanding officer of the Nunavut RCMP) had the foresight and presence of mind to shoot Kalluk in the leg, sparing his life without endangering the many bystanders. But for the incredible restraint and composure of the member, Kalluk would not be alive to tell his story.

Victim and victimizer

Like many career criminals, Kalluk is both victim and victimizer.

Using still-photos and interview footage from friends and family, Jaypoody, a fellow resident of Clyde River, presents a childhood rife with neglect and abuse. The tragic death of his father by firearm and his absentee mother shed further light on why Kalluk became the man he was.

But Jaypoody never portrays Kalluk as a victim. And Kalluk never uses his childhood suffering to justify his past behaviour.

Kalluk owes much of his recovery to David Harder, his life coach and mentor who first encountered the troubled Inuk youth in the Young Offenders Unit of the Yellowknife correctional centre.

David Harder, who becomes Kalluk's life coach and mentor, offers glimpses into Kalluk's past. (Piksuk Media)

Harder came to Clyde River to be interviewed for the film and his recorded conversations with Kalluk provide some of the most revealing dialogue about Kalluk's past.

As the film moves forward, the focus shifts to the present, and more importantly, to his future and the future of his community.

A shoulder to lean on

The documentary reveals Kalluk's relationship with a local man named Martin whose life has been decimated from huffing propane. Kalluk offers himself to Martin as an example of the possibility of redemption. He provides a shoulder to lean on and a sympathetic ear.

Kalluk isn't a trained counsellor, but in a territory that has so few resources in its communities, he is the best they've got and doing the best he can.

The documentary reveals Kalluk's relationship with a local man named Martin whose life has been decimated from huffing propane. (David Harder/Piksuk Media)

When he says, "Martin needs me, I know that. I believe in him. Maybe that's all he needs is someone to believe in him, to make him believe in himself again," it's impossible not to be filled with respect for a man who has truly come back from the brink.

Storytelling plain and simple

Most features and articles about Nunavut are done by parachute journalists and visiting academics; having a local man at the helm is what makes this film so refreshing and genuine. 

With a sparse score and tight pacing, Jaypoody allows his subjects to tell the stories in their own words — both in Inuktitut and English — and on their own turf. It is storytelling plain and simple.

Kalluk and his family in Clyde River. (Mike Jaypoody/Piksuk Media)

No slick editing, no heavy handed agenda, no bureaucratic talking heads. It is an Inuit story with an Inuit voice. Many larger social issues are given only cursory consideration in order to maintain the unflinching eye on Kalluk and his life.

In the end, the film leaves us hoping that Tony will continue to keep his demons at bay and help Martin follow in his footsteps. But it should also leave us wondering what we as Canadians can do to keep more young Nunavummiut from suffering like either of them.

About the Author

Malcolm Kempt

Guest columnist

Malcolm Kempt was the first lawyer to article in the newly created territory of Nunavut in 2004. He's been working as a criminal lawyer in Nunavut ever since. He currently divides his time between the North and Halifax.