Tony: Back from the Brink touches a nerve at Iqaluit screening

The redemption story in Tony: Back from the Brink found a receptive audience during a screening Thursday in Iqaluit where high school students and special guests shared their own struggles.

'It reminds me of some of the struggles I faced,' says MLA Paul Okalik

Jacqueline Gibbons leads the Inuksuk Drum Dancers in a performance to open a special screening of the documentary, Tony: Back from the Brink, in Iqaluit Thursday. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

"The film is very powerful," said Iqaluit-Sinaa MLA Paul Okalik, after watching a screening of Tony: Back from the Brink at Iqaluit's Astro Theatre Thursday afternoon. 

"It reminds me of some of the struggles I faced. Not as hard as Tony's."

Okalik was just one of the guests at CBC North's screening of the documentary. The film follows Clyde River's Tony Kalluk, a former violent criminal on the road to redemption and his experience through the Canadian justice and prison system. Thursday afternoon's screening, for 50 grade 10, 11 and 12 Inuksuk High School students, was followed by a forum of special guests, including Okalik, reacting to the film.

After the screening, special guests reacted to the film during a forum. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)
"I was maybe 13 years old when I became very angry," said Okalik.

"I lost my brother to suicide because he had issues with the law. I never really recovered from that. I just really wanted to do whatever I could to hurt the police who hurt my brother.

"I followed his path. I turned to alcohol to try and cover my hurt. And I became addicted to alcohol."

Okalik says he had his first drink at 15. He became sober at 27.

During the forum, a grade 11 student asked Okalik what the turning point in his life was.

Students had the chance to ask questions. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

"When I realized I was going to be a father is probably the most turning point for me," he replied. "I just said: 'I can't be a father in this state. I can't just live from bottle to bottle and be a dad.' So I realized I had to change my ways to improve my own life and raise my own children."

Okalik credited his late sister, Ida, for pushing him to improve.

"What I learned from that was to never carry the anger, let it go, if you want to advance in life. It saved me."

'How my mother felt'

Former National Inuit Youth Council president Anguti Johnston had a different reaction.

"I grew up in Igloolik, hunting and with my friends and running youth programs," he said. "I, myself had a wonderful upbringing where I didn't have many dark days to deal with.

"But watching this, I instantly start to begin to know more of how my mother felt."

Johnston, who also plays Inuk Qablunaaq on the comedy television show, Qanurli?, says the film reminded him of his family and how people deal with their anger.

Leanna Wilson and Tooma Laisa opened with some throatsinging. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

"I just remember as a young child how my mother would hurt and how her pain would be expressed through drinking a lot," he said. 

"As soon as this session is over, I'm going to call my mother and tell her I love her."

Johnston says his biggest takeaway from watching the film for the first time was protagonist Tony Kalluk's relationship with his mentor, Dave Harder. Kalluk first met Harder when he was a young offender in Yellowknife, and Harder's faith in Kalluk helps him turn his life around.

"The biggest part of this whole film was just how it takes that one person to believe in you to believe in yourself," Johnston said.