Finding hope: how arson in Shamattawa is turning into a call for action

A devastating arson lit by kids in Shamattawa is highlighting the need for hope and unity in the community.

"I thought maybe if I came back here, maybe I could be the change to help them" says Liam Napaokesik

Shamattawa: Turning a corner after arson

6 years ago
Duration 2:38
At 20 years old you can tell Liam Napaokesik is wiser than his age. After finishing school in the south, he is back home in Shamattawa teaching kids.

At 20 years old you can tell Liam Napaokesik is wiser than his age.

The brand new teaching assistant at Shamattawa's school is smartly dressed and upbeat but he isn't all that different from the youth he's working with.

"It's tough," he says about growing up here.

Gripped by loss and tempted, at times, to isolate or escape with drugs and alcohol: Napaokesik's been there.

"I still have that to this day. I'm still tempted to do drugs on a daily basis," he said. "The only thing that keeps you from saying no is the students here everyday. I realize that they rely on me on a daily basis so I have to show up sober."

He may be the chief's son but he's not willing to sugarcoat the issues kids face here and in remote communities across Manitoba's north.

In fact, between the devastating arsons involving youth, the spate of youth suicides in 2015 and the rampant availability of drugs and alcohol, he's convinced the problems are actually getting worse.

A young boy plays bubble hockey in Shamattawa. (Jill Coubrough/CBC News)

"When I was growing up, as soon as a party started the cops were there in half an hour, as soon as the music gets too loud. Now I see them get away with a lot."

But whether he knows it or not, Napaokesik is someone the kids can look up to.

He left the community to study in Selkirk for the last three years of high school. After graduating with honours he has returned this year to help teach.

"They are crying out for help."

This latest arson reaffirms the importance of coming back. 

"They're crying out for help," he said of the kids here. "They just want someone to take them seriously and just listen to them. I thought maybe if I came back here, maybe I could be the change to help them."

He's not alone in his return to help. Principal Lawrence Einarsson has been back for four years now.

"For one thing, I enjoy this community," he said. "I wouldn't have come back if I didn't enjoy it. I know back in the 60's and 70's Shamattawa got a bad rap but you know ... this is a very good community."

Both men call the fire a wake up call — one highlighting the need for more recreation and mental health counselling to support all kids, especially those that are misbehaving.

"They need a lot more programs which a school can't offer. We can offer a certain amount of programs but we can't offer everything," Einarsson said.

Einarsson wants more resources for psychologists and specialists and he's not sitting idle.

He drafted a proposal to establish funding for Shamattawa's first and own crisis response team. The plans have been sent off to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, the Red Cross and the RCMP in Ottawa.

"We want Shamattawa to take ownership of it," Einarsson said of the team and the issues.

The local RCMP detachment is reaching out to kids too. On top of policing, Sgt. Ryan Merasty and his fellow officers are running movie nights with the school. They also make a point of getting involved in local events including Treaty days, Christmas and graduation.

"The youth are fantastic," Merasty said. "They know a lot of us by name ... they're just like any other kid out that's there. They just want to be talked to, you know, have attention drawn to them ... we try to be really positive with the kids."

Sgt. Ryan Merasty says despite this latest arson Shamattawa has changed over the years for the better. (Jill Coubrough/CBC News)

Merasty grew up in Thompson and has worked in several northern communities. He says when you look at the stats, there is hope for Shamattawa.

"Being here and having been elsewhere they are on the right track," he said. "With more resources they are on a better track."

The RCMP are also holding a fire prevention presentation next week to better inform them of the risks and reality.

Once the snow flies, vice principal Rylee Gilbert will get out and flood the local hockey rink.

Einarsson said this kind of unity is what youth in Shamattawa need. He's calling on everyone, parents and elders included, to pitch in.

"There's only certain people that do get involved, but it's always the same people [and] you know they get tired," he said. "We need different organizations to commit themselves."

Back in class, Napaokesik reads a book to his giggling Grade 4 students.

It's only one month in and everyone knows there is still a long way to go.


Jill Coubrough

Reporter, CBC News

Jill Coubrough is a video journalist with CBC News based in Winnipeg. She previously worked as a reporter for CBC News in Halifax and as an associate producer for the CBC documentary series Land and Sea. She holds a degree in political studies from the University of Manitoba and a degree in journalism from the University of King's College. Email: