This week the people of La Loche will bury part of their future

The tragedy at La Loche has spread across Canada and Indian country. The shock of a young man lashing out at his community, allegedly killing four and seriously wounding seven, strikes deep into our collective conscience.

Some serious soul searching needed for all Canadians, says Doug Cuthand

Residents of Stanley Mission, Sask., hold a candlelight vigil for the victims of the school shooting in La Loche. (Prestin Fleming)

The tragedy at La Loche has spread across Canada and Indian country.

The shock of a young man lashing out at his community, allegedly killing four and seriously wounding seven, strikes deep into our collective conscience.

In his message on social media the alleged shooter stated that he "had it with life."  He had just shot two people and was heading to the school. The term "had it with life"  indicates he was prepared to die. The police call it suicide by cop. 

In a 2010 report, the rate of suicide for La Loche and the surrounding area was five times as great as that of the province of Saskatchewan as a whole. From 2005 to 2010 there were 18 suicides.
Four people were killed by teenaged shooter on Jan 22, 2016 in La Loche: (Clockwise from top left): Marie Janvier, 21; Adam Wood, 35; Drayden Fontaine, 13; and Dayne Fontaine, 17. (Submitted to CBC/Facebook)

Suicides occur with very little reportage. The deaths dribble in year after year. Gradually the graveyard has filled up with the graves of young people. As one person pointed out the graveyard is almost full.

However when four people are killed in one incident, it's all over the news and brings the issues into stark focus.

Classic colonialism

La Loche is not that different from many northern Canadian communities. It is a settlement made up of a group of Dene communities scattered around the area.

La Loche itself was originally a summer camp. The people lived at Portage La Loche or west La Loche, Ducharme Lake, Garson Lake and other smaller locations. The people were independent and the culture was strong. Portage La Loche was the centre.

People made a living portaging goods for fur traders from Lac La Loche to the Clearwater River. The portage was about 32 kilometres and the people used horses to make the trip. This historic portage connected the Churchill River basin with the McKenzie River basin.

The village of La Loche was established by government to centralize the people and make it easier for government. This happened between the two world wars, and people from Portage La Loche moved there after the Second World War.

Sadly this is the story of the north: artificial communities created at the whim of government officials simply to make administration easier.  

It's classic colonialism — outsiders doing what they think is best to control a people.

This created social issues, welfare dependency, addictions and violence. This story has been repeated over and over again across the county, and indigenous people have suffered for it.

Strong and beautiful people

But in spite of all the problems in the community, the social dysfunction and poverty, a closer look beneath the surface reveals a strong and beautiful people.

Like all the Dene communities in northern Saskatchewan, the Catholic religion is strong and a part of the community. While Christianity has been embraced, the Dene culture and religion exist within their belief system.

The people also come together in times of grief and tragedy and support each other.

But what is really striking is the lack of revenge and anger directed toward the alleged perpetrator. People in the community describe him as a sensitive and quiet teen. In an article by Jason Warick, in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, people stated that the teen had been teased and bullied — and in fact he overlooked people who had treated him with kindness. 

RCMP made an arrest without incident. Now the teenage has been charged with first-degree and attempted murder. The accused will have to face a court of law and, if he is the guilty party he will face a lifetime of incarceration, pain, loneliness and shame.

Eventually his story will come out and we will know what drew him to his desperate action.
Members of the community come out to watch Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall speak in La Loche, Sask., on Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016. A shooting Friday left four people dead. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press )

Meanwhile there is some serious soul searching out there in Indian country. No indigenous community is without pain from suicide and violence. Many people have friends or relations that died before their time.

Canadians need to be aware that.the cuts to programming that the community has been experiencing in the past few years have had a huge impact. Governments make decisions that affect real people and cause real damage.

The people in La Loche will go through a period of mourning but the families will grieve for a lifetime.

They say that when children bury their parents they are burying their past, when parents bury their children they are burying their future.

This week the people of La Loche will bury a part of their future.

About the Author

Doug Cuthand

Doug Cuthand is an Indigenous affairs columnist, freelance journalist and filmmaker who lives in Saskatoon. He is a member of the Little Pine First Nation, Sask.