The Remnants of Colonization in La Loche: What Factors Lead to Tragedy?

On January 22nd, a 17-year-old student killed four individuals in La Loche, Saskatchewan.

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The four victims of the La Loche shooting, Adam Wood, Marie Janvier, and Dayne and Drayden Fontaine.

When I first heard about this heartbreaking tragedy I was shocked. Since then, I’ve been reading more and more about the town of La Loche in order to better understand the context of what happened. Below I’ve shared some of what I’ve learned about the situation this small Northern town has faced.

1. Rural isolation

Canada has become an urban nation, so the city is where most of our jobs and resources are.

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In some ways the popular Canadian cliche of a “vast, empty wilderness” is still true today. Just like the “discovery” of Canada – when a country filled with many different nations was considered “empty” by explorers – today Canadians still consider the jobless pockets of Northern Canada “empty”.

While settler-Canadians have congregated primarily in the region of Canada closest to the American border, First Nations peoples still tend to be the majority in Northern rural areas. In La Loche, for example, more than 2,400 of the 2,600 community members identify as First Nations or Metis.

However, these communities have changed considerably since “the discovery” of Canada. Generations of First Nations peoples were forced to give up their cultural practices during their time in the Residential school system, which lasted from the 1870s all the way into the 1990s. They also gave up huge portions of land to white settlers. Not as a gift, but in an exchange drafted out in treaties that the Canadian government has yet to honour.

First Nations communities continue to survive, despite the loss of many traditional practices and lands. While these communities struggle to overcome their isolation, many settler-Canadians continue to ask why they don’t move south to find more jobs and a “better lifestyle”. In her article responding to this question, Susanna Kelley argues that many rural reserve members are forced to give up their land and community support if they want to find employment and education.

“First of all, the overwhelming majority of [rural] reserve residents have not completed high school and have no place to work once they hit the urban south. And many fly in reserves don’t have high schools.  Would you like to send your 13-year-old to live 70 km. away for months at a time?

Many who do come to the cities end up in the sex and drug trade.  They simply are unqualified to make a living other ways…

Which is why many [First Nations] people stay where they are, close to family and their community.

But what most Canadians don’t know is that our nation is legally bound to provide housing, health care and education to [First Nations people] who live on reserves.

The federal government isn’t just doing it out of the goodness of its heart.

The obligation comes from legally binding agreements made by treaty many years ago.”

2. Poverty

In spite of the agreements outlined in Canada’s treaties, many First Nations communities in Canada are struggling with poverty.

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In La Loche specifically, the median income in 2011 was $14,497, more than $50,000 less than the national average. 

And according to many reports, homes are also overcrowded, since “the number of people living in homes with more than one person per room is five times the average in Saskatchewan”.

3. Unemployment and lack of education

The official unemployment rate in La Loche is 22.3. There are little to no employment opportunities in the town itself, and public service positions, like those held by teachers and RCMP officers, are often filled by (usually white) “outsiders”.

Meanwhile, 78 percent of residents over 15 have no post-secondary certificate, diploma or degree. Partially, this may be the result of rural isolation, as outlined above, but perhaps the kids in this community also see the lack of opportunity and think there is little reason to try.

The school in La Loche is part of the provincial education system, and as such would have more funding that the typical reserve school. Since First Nations education falls under federal jurisdiction reserve schools are funded differently. In some cases, these schools get half the funding a provincially funded school would receive.

4. Suicide and mental illness

Many of the reports on the La Loche shooter drew attention to his experience of being bullied. The quote I’ve seen mentioned most often is by Perry Herman, who explained that “He was a normal boy. He was not a monster. He was hurting.

Elena Shurshilova, the small town’s only psychiatrist, argues that “Homicide and suicide are two sides of the same coin” and insists that

“What happened isn’t surprising at all, but what is surprising is that something like this didn’t happen before in this location, where the suicide rates are so high.”

According to the New York Times,

“Eighteen people, most of them young, killed themselves from August 2005 to January 2010 in La Loche, which has a population of about 2,600.”

But the epidemic of suicide isn’t just limited to La Loche. Here in Canada, First Nations youth have a much higher rate of suicide than the national average. Living in a tight-knit communities, like La Loche, can also contribute to what is sometimes referred to as the contagion of suicide. When most residents know one another death affects the entire community.

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Over the last few days I’ve read a lot of statistics about the terrible odds facing residents of First Nations communities like La Loche. Yet I’ve also been struck by the town’s hard work to overcome these odds.

There’s the dropping crime rate of the region. And the goal of creating youth centres for youth with nowhere safe to hang out.

And there are residents like Ricky Janvier and Bonnie Fontaine, who have overcome their own struggles with alcoholism and suicide.

The community also banded together to support the victims via a local radio station fundraiser, which has already brought in $10,000 for the funeral expenses of Adam Wood and $6,000 for the families of the individuals wounded during the shooting. Apparently “Funeral expenses for the brothers Dayne and Drayden Fontaine, killed in their home, [are] next on the agenda.”


 

On January 22nd, a 17-year-old student killed four individuals in La Loche, Saskatchewan.

That event drew the town, and its many struggles, into the public spotlight. It also reminded the Canadian government that the effects of colonization are not just in the past, but continue to play out in many of our rural communities. Our current PM, Justin Trudeau promised to make these struggles a priority if he were elected, and First Nations voters came out in droves to help him keep this promise.

As La Loche attempts to heal from this tragedy, I look forward to seeing what kind of changes our new government plans to initiate. Hopefully, they will be the kind of changes that will increase the odds for a successful and healthy life in this community.

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