Saskatchewan school shooting: La Loche faces uphill battle with hope

Bobby Montgrand moved to La Loche, Sask., from a small northern community so his kids could get a better education — now he wants them to live a better life.

Northern community struggles with addiction, poverty and unemployment

Church members console each other outside church after a mass in La Loche, Sask., on Sunday, following the shooting on Friday. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Bobby Montgrand moved to La Loche, Sask., from a small northern community so his kids could get a better education — now he wants them to live a better life. 

"There's a lack of everything," he said. "We don't have nothing. We're 50 years behind." 

He wants all levels of government to address the social issues that plague the community — from addiction to poverty and unemployment to the high number of suicides. On top of these struggles, the village made international headlines last week when four people were killed and seven injured in a shooting. 

"I'm 38 years old and I've got experience from the past," he said. "Now I'm not worrying about the past, but we've got to fix the future. Now we can do things for our kids." 

Métis National Council president Clément Chartier said the present problems can be traced back to the 1960s and early '70s when the community transitioned from the traditional way of living, by hunting and fishing, to wage labour. 

"People were caught up in a situation where there were no jobs," said Chartier, who grew up in Buffalo Narrows, about 100 kilometres southwest of La Loche. "I don't think people have fully adjusted in terms of employment."

According to the 2011 National Household Survey by Statistics Canada, the unemployment rate in the community was estimated at 22.3 per cent. In comparison, Saskatchewan's unemployment rate in July 2015 was 5.2 per cent. 

"There's no jobs in town here," said Edward Montgrand. "There's nothing for our kids. They make Grade 12, they stay home, that's it. There's no jobs." 

Bobby Montgrand, an elder, poses with his children, Dailen and Braylyn (right to left) in La Loche. (Matthew Kruchak/CBC)
Chartier said there is something that could help, but residents would have to head to Alberta to prosper.

"The big hope is an all-weather road to Fort McMurray," he said. The Alberta city is about 120 kilometres away as the crow flies. A highway connection would give young people the opportunity for a future and well-paying work. The median income in La Loche is $14,497, according to the 2011 National Household Survey. 

With an easier route to jobs in the trades, Chartier said, it would give young people a goal to pursue. Of the slightly more than 2,600 people who live in the community, 220 who are 15 and older have a high school diploma, according to the 2011 National Household Survey. 

Edward Montgrand believes the lack of jobs has led to the shocking number of suicides.

"It's bad in town here," he said. "Too many people dying." 

According to a 2010 report from the Keewatin Yatthe Regional Health Authority which includes La Loche and surrounding area, the five-year average for suicides was 61.1 per 100,000 people. The report states that for the same period the average for Saskatchewan was 12 per 100,000. In 2013 the health region's population was around 12,200.

A report in 2010 for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation found that from the ages of 10 to 29, aboriginal youth on reserves are five to six times more likely to die of suicide than their peers in the general population. Over a third of all deaths among aboriginal youth are attributable to suicide. 

There are suicide prevention programs, but residents say it's just not enough. 

While the community grieves for the victims of the shootings last Friday, the mayor and council have requested that the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority liquor store remain closed for the entire week. 

Edward Montgrand believes the lack of jobs has led to the shocking number of suicides in La Loche. (Matthew Kruchak/CBC)

Area residents are now calling for more resources and facilities to help the struggling community.

Brien Morgan, a teacher on the nearby Clearwater River First Nation who moved to the area 13 years ago from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., laments the lack of infrastructure.

"There are things that I wished my kids had here, and the community wishes they had here, and we're in a situation where we aren't surrounded with tons of infrastructure. There is development going on, but it's a challenge when you're in the north, you often do get shuffled aside," he said. 

The carpentry and construction teacher wishes his community had a youth centre, an enclosed ice rink, and a restaurant where people could sit down to a nice meal. 

"Those type of things just aren't here," he said. 

But Bobby Montgrand has hope for his northern community.

"Because people are kind-hearted people and they are nice," he said. "If you go to your next-door neighbour, they'll feed you. That's how it is around here."