'I just knew that I had to': Sister of school shooting victim leads La Loche youth research project

Caitlin Wood made young people in La Loche, Sask., the focus her recently completed master’s research project in early childhood studies to help give young people a voice after realizing they felt they were not being heard in the wake of her brother's shooting death.

Caitlin Wood's brother, teacher Adam Wood, was 1 of 4 people killed

Caitlin Wood, whose brother Adam Wood was killed in a school shooting in La Loche, Sask., in 2016, wanted to help give young people a voice through her research. (Jason Warick/CBC)

It's impossible for Caitlin Wood to know exactly how her brother Adam Wood would feel about her research project to give the youth of La Loche, Sask., a voice through photography. 

Adam Wood, a teacher at La Loche Dene High School, was one of four people killed when a teenager opened fire at the school on Jan. 22, 2016, in one of two shootings that day by the same youth who later pleaded guilty to several charges. 

What Caitlin Wood does know for sure, and what she grew to understand when she spent time in the community after his death, is why her brother loved the northern Saskatchewan community:

I know he would have been excited … I do know that he would have been proud of the work.- Caitlin Wood

"The amount of hope that the youth have about their community, the incredible amount of joy and pride they have in the community members, and in the people and in the customs and things that are carried out, the celebrations that they get to attend," said his sister.

La Loche voices cut out after shooting: Wood

Last year, Wood made young people in La Loche the focus of her recently completed master's research project in early childhood studies at Ryerson University in Toronto.
Caitlin Wood's recently completed research project gives young people in the northern Saskatchewan community a chance to express themselves through photography. (Submitted by Caitlin Wood)

Her desire to raise awareness about what life is like in the northern community dates back to the weeks after her brother's death.

As her own family was bombarded with requests for media interviews, they noticed that the people who knew La Loche best were not getting as much of a chance to speak. 

"We realized that part of the narrative that was very much cut out was the community voices of La Loche and that's really the people that know what they need," she said.

"[They] understand the situation, understand the experiences of living in the North and living in La Loche and what the community really is, and a fuller picture of what it is instead of this very one-sided, negative, deficit view that was being reported in a lot of the media."

Adam Wood, who was originally from Ontario, was passionate about teaching youth and loved his life in La Loche, Sask., his sister says. (Facebook)

Returning to La Loche

After the tragedy, Wood became increasingly connected to people in La Loche.

Having always worked with children and youth, it bothered her that she was not hearing more from the young people in the community.

After travelling to La Loche for the memorial in 2017, she made the decision to dedicate her master's research to giving the youth a voice.

Later in the year, she returned to the community to run the photography project with 11 young people between ages 13 and 19.

She gave each teenager a camera and asked them to take one photograph each in response to five questions: What is your life like? What is good about your life? What makes you strong? What needs to change? And what should childhood look like?

Wood then made audio recordings of the students explaining their photographs.
A picture of friendship taken by Zach, one of the youth participants in Wood's research project aimed at giving young people in La Loche a voice through photography. The photographer told Wood that friendships make him strong 'because you have someone to care for, and someone who cares about you.' (Zach)

Youth observations

The youth used their photographs to express how they feel about their connections with friends, the comfort they get from nature and the importance of the outdoors to their childhoods.
Bree, the young La Loche photographer who snapped this image, said friendship is important. 'When you’re down, they’re like there for you… they’re there for you like whenever.' (Bree)

Some explained the close bonds that they have with their pets, their concern for the environment, gratitude for the natural world and how they worry about a lack of access to medical services in the North. For privacy reasons, the picture captions in this story use only the teenagers' first names, some of which are pseudonyms. 

Wood hopes her research will help answer questions about how Canada can do a better job of listening to youth and children.

"And how do we respect them as experts in their lives because we really don't often treat them as that, but they are," she said.

Partly it was to gain the research, partly it was to provide an opportunity for youth who maybe have perspectives, and who have wanted to share them but haven't had an avenue."
Kaylin, the young photographer who took this picture, says her life is 'all about sunsets.' (Kaylin)

After the project

Wood said she has thought a lot about the reasons she felt it was important to do the research, and the idea of wanting to honour her brother.

"Truly I'm not entirely sure what the specific 'whys' are," she said.

"I think I'll probably be learning about that for a very long time, about why I did it, I just knew that I had to."

With the research completed, she said she is considering what comes next, but expects her work with La Loche will never really end.
Jazz, who took this picture, told Wood that life is all about living in the moment, day by day. 'Don't stress about the future. People are so caught up in looking into their future, that they kind of lose what's in front of them.' (Jazz)

She recently sent photo books to the students who took part in the study, and said there are tentative plans in La Loche to hold a group discussion about the pictures and the teenagers' observations.

Wood said it is difficult to gauge how the project has impacted the students' lives, but she is pleased they had a chance to be heard.

Brother would have been proud

She also can't be sure what her brother would have said about the project, but believes he would have been proud.

"We were a lot more comfortable making a lot of jokes with one another and not having serious conversations about things," she said.

"I do know he was passionate about working with the youth and really, really enjoyed his time in La Loche as well.

"And so I know he would have been excited … I do know that he would have been proud of the work."

Caitlin Wood was interviewed just weeks before the scheduled sentencing of the youth who also killed tutor Marie Janvier at the school and wounded others. Earlier the same day, brothers Dayne and Drayden Fontaine were killed in their home.

In October, the teen pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder, two counts of first-degree murder and seven counts of attempted murder. Arguments were heard earlier this year as to whether he should be sentenced as a youth or an adult. The judge's decision is expected Feb. 23.
Jazz, one of the project participants, responded to the research question with a picture of his dog and this response. 'True bonding is not measured by time spent together, but by the comfort you find when you realize you have each other. If I could give my dog one thing in life, I would give him the ability to see himself through my eyes. Only then would he realize how special he is to me.' (Jazz)