‘We Need to Stay Awake’

La Loche

La Loche, Saskatchewan is located about 600 km northwest of Saskatoon where I have lived for the last 12 years. Before the tragic shooting that took place in the town of about 3,000 people on January 22, I knew very little about La Loche. I knew it was “up north” and usually pretty cold in the provincial weather reports. Like many people in Saskatchewan and most people in Canada, I was not aware of the problems and challenges with which the people of La Loche were living. In the aftermath of this tragedy, I learned that about 90 per cent of the residents of La Loche self-identify as Aboriginal, unemployment is about 22.3 per cent, and about 38 per cent of homes are deemed unsuitable by the National Occupancy Standard.

Archbishop Murray Chatlain of the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas suggested in an interview with the Catholic Register that we should resist the urge to place blame. But he was not without criticism, particularly of an education system which cut funding for extra-curricular programs at the school over recent years. “It is impossible to draw complete correlations,” Chatlain said, “but there is a need for the young people to have more support and programs.”

Although it took a horrific shooting, in which a troubled young man killed four people and seriously injured seven more, for most of us to start paying attention to La Loche, this was certainly not the first time that the community’s needs had been in the news. Murray Mandryk, a political columnist for the Regina Leader-Post pointed out on January 26, 2016 that back in 2009 another Leader-Post journalist drew the public’s attention to nine suicide funerals of local La Loche youth that its priest, Father John Zunti, had presided over in the previous year alone. Other issues were noted including drug and alcohol abuse and gang violence. Another article in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix in 2015 highlighted the fact that the health region that includes La Loche has the highest rate of suicide in the province – 43.4 suicide deaths per 100,000 people – 3.5 times the provincial average. At that time, one member of the community who worked for the Strengthening Families Program described La Loche as a “community in crisis,” saying, “We could declare this as a state of emergency.”

Although on the surface, the shooting in La Loche may sound like other school shootings that have taken place over the years in Canadian and American cities, Mandryk suggests that this one was very different. It was different because it was inevitable. It was different because the community had been pleading for help for decades. It was different because we could have done something to stop it and we didn’t. Mandryk simply concludes that “we need to stop ignoring La Loche and spend the money on the social supports it needs.”

Other journalists have been less harsh in their assessment of the situation, but there seems to be widespread agreement that what happened in La Loche was a wake-up call for Canadians—that we need to do more for Métis and First Nations communities that are struggling without adequate social supports and resources. Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau noted that it is a bigger program than one shooting: “We will and we must work together to address the deeper issues facing our country that have yet again been highlighted by tragedy and heartbreak.”

Of course, Canadians across the country were shocked by what happened, and the people of Saskatchewan, perhaps especially, felt for the community in the midst of their grief. The Archbishop serving the mostly Catholic community of La Loche immediately went to pray with and support the people, including the families of both the victims and the shooter. Politicians also came quickly to offer condolences and promises of more assistance. People in many places held vigils and prayed.

On Tuesday, February 2, several members of my congregation (St. Andrew’s, Saskatoon) joined with Christians and people of other faiths too, for a time of reflection and prayer for those who died, those who were injured, their families and friends, and the whole community of La Loche, hosted by St. John’s Anglican Cathedral. Bluejay Linklater began the service by drumming a “Song of Mourn” and ended with a “Rising Song.” Harry Lafond, Executive Director of the Office of the Treaty Commissioner, brought greetings and challenged us to reflect on what happened in the context of the continuing need for reconciliation and healing in First Nations and Métis communities throughout our country.

Although La Loche is a long way away, those injured in the shooting have been cared for right here in Saskatoon at our hospitals, and the grandmother of one of the victims was able to attend the “City Prayer Service for the People of La Loche.” After the welcome by Dean Scott Pittendrigh, she shared the good news that her granddaughter, still recovering in the ICU, had woken up for the first time that day.

I was privileged to be invited to assist with leading the singing that evening, as well as to lead prayers of intercession for all those impacted by the tragedy. The service included words of hope and healing from Isaiah 43, Psalm 46, and Revelation 21, a thoughtful homily by Dean Scott, lighting candles to remember the light that shines in the darkness, a reading from the Qur’an and short reflection by Dr. Mateen Raazi from the Islamic Association of Saskatchewan, the Lord’s Prayer shared in a First Nations language, and an offering gathered for the School Children of La Loche.

Organizing and attending a prayer service for La Loche was a small thing to do for a community that is both reeling from this tragedy and struggling in many ways. If we have truly experienced the La Loche shooting as a wake-up call, then we need to stay awake. We need to pay attention to the quieter pleas for assistance from other northern communities, and we need to make sure that our governments take action towards long term improvements.

Working diligently on the Calls to Action put forward by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada would be a good way to begin. As Harry Lafond pointed out during our prayer service, the recommendations of the TRC offer “a tool kit so that we can begin to initiate change in our own hearts, because that’s where it all has to begin—and from there to our families and our communities, to Saskatchewan and Canada.” Let us keep La Loche and all our small, northern communities in our prayers, as well as advocate for the resources and support they need to grow healthy, hopeful, thriving communities where such tragic events do not happen.

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About Amanda Currie

Rev. Amanda Currie is minister at St. Andrew’s, Saskatoon, Sask.