William Russ

Moving Forward and Giving Back: William Russ Acts on His Dreams and On Screen

“If you just go for it, you can achieve things that you never thought you'd dreamed of,” encourages William Russ. He lives on Haida Gwaii and works with Haida Child and Family Services doing family preservation work. He teaches life skills like cooking, banking, food gathering, researching information and getting set up for life after high school, where he teaches music and has worked with local carvers on a totem pole. 

Youth work has been his life for over a decade and feels like the right thing given his own experiences. “When I grew up, we didn't have a lot of support like this. We didn't have a lot of things to do, other than playing certain sports like basketball and things like that,” he recalls. 

While youth work wasn’t always his plan, his passion for music started in childhood. He checked out equipment in magazines and the computer he got in his twenties let him make hip hop music. He is now learning how to mix and master professionally so he can train local youth. Music helps him relate to them. “It's just something that I really love to do and I just can't stop doing it,” he beams. 

The other role he plays is as an actor. Once too shy for drama class, he acted in the Edge of the Knife movie, encouraged to audition by friends and family. He’s since done some Haida language voice overs for other projects. He wants to keep acting but agents will only work with him from a bigger city, something he’s considering after being in a movie that won 30 awards and took him around the world. 

It’s a far cry from what life was like In high school, when Russ struggled, dropping out and returning when he realized not graduating could interfere with his career prospects. He took his education more seriously and finished at 19. His principal told him he was too smart not to go to college and convinced him to try. His strong support system got him through that adventure. 

To this day, he still loves learning. He shares his story with youth so they know there are always ways to find motivation to get the education to achieve your professional goals. “Everything takes quite a bit of education these days,” he explains. 

Before college, he had only left Haida Gwaii a few times and knew nothing of city life, how to drive there or meet new people. He encourages youth leaving home for school to find a good group of friends like he did. He talks about college as the biggest responsibility students will have up to that point in their life, between studying, reading and doing homework but that it is also an experience to enjoy, full of new experiences. 

Living with his sister and cousin who already lived in the city also helped him adjust to his new life. Culture shock was a struggle going from a community of 800 people he knew well to Malaspina College in Nanaimo where he knew no one. While it’s a smaller city, it took some getting used to. From there, he was able to adjust to Victoria, Vancouver, and Nova Scotia, too. Living near bodies of water made everything feel more natural, thinking of his seaside home.

Illustration by Shaikara David

Another challenge he’s faced in life has been self doubt and low self-esteem. Through determination and perseverance, he’s been able to reach many of his goals. Trying to make a name for himself in music has been hard but that same persistence and adopting a perspective that it is a learning experience and opportunity for artistic expression has helped. Acting in Edge of the Knife with only a couple weeks training was a challenge but the training he received helped him get into character and use his emotions. Being open minded and willing to learn from failure let him grow, try new things and let go of perfectionism. His fear of performing live music is something he’s working on so he can start sharing his work more in public.

If he could give his younger self advice, it would be to push himself to move past self doubt and fear sooner. He wishes he could say, “Just go for it. It doesn't matter. No one's gonna judge you. Just be brave.”  He also wishes he slept more and took better care of himself to protect his health. 

When his daughter was born, he realized he had to step up and be a good example and thought about the things he wanted to give her that he didn’t have as a kid. Russ didn’t want his daughter to face the same challenges with self esteem and she’s now what he describes as a “really powerful little kid.” She continues to inspire him to do better every day.

To maintain his mental health, Russ has fun being silly and plays with his cats. He uses visualization, breath work and exercises to release anxiety. Exercise, spending time in nature, making music, and therapy also help him stay level. Spiritual self care is important given how many people depend on him and it is a daily practice. 

When he needs inspiration, Russ looks to the beauty of his culture and the renaissance he sees in canoeing, carving, his language, songs and dances. “Our language is so valuable. When you understand your traditional language and you speak it, it really does bring a piece of you back, and you feel stronger and more powerful and healthy,” he shares, reflecting on his experience speaking his language so much in Edge of the Knife.  People trying to live their best life inspire him, too. 

To inspire youth, Russ would like to say, “Even if you stumble even if you fall flat on your face, just get back up and dust yourself off and keep moving forward. There's no end to what you can achieve with your life. Even if you feel like you've started out slow, you can still achieve anything that you can put your mind to… just keep marching forward, keep moving in the direction that you want to go, you'll you'll get to some beautiful places, stuff that you've never even realized that you were going to get to and don't forget to enjoy. Don't forget to celebrate yourself and your success and your life and celebrate it with others… lots of joy and happiness.”

William Russ knows firsthand that if you just go for it, you can achieve things that you never thought you'd dreamed of. From struggling to graduate to going to college, working with youth and families, acting in a movie, and making music, he’s a continuous learner and a dedicated teacher.  Sharing his lessons to create what he needed when he was growing up in Haida Gwaii helps him give back as he moves forward. 

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.

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Key Parts

  • Career
  • Identity
    First Nations
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  • Province/Territory
    British Columbia
  • Date
    January 23, 2024
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