OTTAWA/TORONTO – Canada’s government, grappling with a fatal attack in a remote aboriginal town, is very concerned about the “tragic and alarming” conditions in other indigenous communities, a top official said on Sunday.
A 17-year-old boy was due to appear in court on Monday, charged with four counts of murder after Friday’s deadly incident in La Loche, an impoverished town in the western province of Saskatchewan.
Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took power last year promising to tackle high levels of poverty, crime, bad housing and poor health among aboriginals, who make up 4 percent of the country’s population of 36 million.
House leader Dominic LeBlanc, a key Trudeau ally from the Atlantic province of New Brunswick, told reporters Ottawa would work with aboriginal leaders “to deal with some of the tragic and alarming social indicators in many of these communities.
He added: “I have some of these communities … in New Brunswick. I worry about them a great deal, and our whole government does.”
Hundreds of people in La Loche, a community of 2,600, attended a church service on Sunday in memory of the four victims.
Local Roman Catholic Archbishop Murray Chatlain said recent cuts to school and other services could have played a role in the tragedy, the Saskatoon StarPhoenix reported.
“I think those things need to be revisited. Our cuts sometimes end up costing more,” the paper quoted him as saying.
Trudeau last month promised a new “nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations peoples” — a term that aboriginals use to refer to themselves — and said he would increase funding for indigenous communities.
The head of a group representing 65,000 aboriginals in northern Manitoba, which borders Saskatchewan, said the tragedy showed the need for major investments in mental health, education and the economy.
“I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more — not to this level, of course — given the despair we see,” Sheila North Wilson said in a phone interview.
LeBlanc said improving the lot of the First Nations was “a huge challenge.
Robert Nault, who served as aboriginal affairs minister under the Liberals from 1999 to 2003, said real change would take a long time.
“So we’re going to have to be patient and start … working on the lack of infrastructure, the lack of housing, to change our relationship as it relates to education and health care,” he said in an interview. “It is a slow process.”
The 17-year-old boy has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder and seven counts of attempted murder in a mass shooting at a school and home in a remote aboriginal community in western Canada, officials said.
Police said the male suspect can’t be named under Canada’s Youth Criminal Justice Act. Royal Canadian Mounted Police Supt. Grant St. Germaine said nine people were shot in the school, including a female teacher’s aide who died at the scene and a male teacher who died in a hospital. He said seven people wounded in Friday’s shooting at the school are hospitalized.
Two brothers, 17-year-old Dayne Fountaine and 13-year-old Drayden, were shot and killed in a home before the gunman headed to the grade 7-12 La Loche Community School, police said. Police responded to a call of shots fired at the school shortly after the lunch hour.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police Commanding Officer Brenda Butterworth-Carr said when officers arrived at the school they saw the front door had been shot open. They entered the school, spotted the suspect and gave chase before apprehending him. He is due in court next week.
Police said Saturday that they were not aware of a motive and declined to say what type of gun was used.
The school is in the remote Dene aboriginal community of La Loche in Saskatchewan Province. La Loche is a community of less than 3,000 where just about everybody knows everybody else.
“This is a significant event for Canada,” St. Germaine said. “It’s a huge impact on the community of La Loche. It’s a part of changing times. We are seeing more violence.”
Residents lighted candles and placed flowers at a makeshift memorial outside the school.
Shootings at schools or on university campuses are rare in Canada. However, the country’s bloodiest mass shooting occurred on Dec. 6, 1989, at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique, when Marc Lepine entered a college classroom at the engineering school, separated the men from the women, told the men to leave and opened fire, killing 14 women before killing himself.
The educational assistant killed at the Saskatchewan school was identified as 21-year-old Marie Janvier. Deegan Park, her boyfriend of three years, said he would have given up the rest of his life just to spend another year with her.
“I grew up not a good guy, but she turned me right,” Park told The Associated Press. “She was that much of a great person to turn me right from all the wrongdoings I used to do. … She was a fantastic person.”
“I loved her, I really did,” said Park, who remembered her smile and how she would blush when she was happy.
Kevin Janvier said his daughter was an only child. “I’m just so sad,” he said.
Ashton Lemaigre, a teacher at the school and friend of Marie Janvier, said she worked as a teacher’s aide in his classroom. He said she was kind and patient with children and planned to get her teaching degree someday.
“The kids loved having her around,” Lemaigre said. “They would just come running to her. And she was just a friend to everybody.”
A second victim was identified as 35-year-old Adam Wood, a new teacher at the school. His family in Ontario issued a statement describing him as an adventurer with a passion for life who made people laugh until their stomachs hurt.
“Adam had just begun his teaching career in La Loche last September and was enjoying his time,” his family said. “He was always up for a good challenge and lived each day joyously.”
Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau, who was attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, called it “every parent’s worst nightmare.”
A student who was just returning from lunch when the shots were fired Friday said his friends ran past him urging him to get out.
“‘Run, bro, run!” Noel Desjarlais-Thomas, 16, recalled his friends saying to him as they fled La Loche’s junior high and high school. “There’s a shotgun! There’s a shotgun! They were just yelling to me. And then I was hearing those shots too, so of course I started running.”
The RCMP said the first reports of shots being fired at the school came in around 1 p.m. Friday, and parents and residents were warned to stay away. Witnesses said some students hid in gym dressing rooms for hours. A nearby elementary school was also placed on lockdown as a precaution.
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said he is in a state of disbelief. He planned to visit La Loche on Sunday and promised to provide crisis support and counseling services. La Loche, like a number of aboriginal communities in Canada’s prairie provinces, has been plagued by high suicide rates and poverty.
Wall added that U.S. Ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman had offered the counsel of U.S. communities that have experienced school shootings.
“He noted that quite tragically the United States has more experience with the likes of what we saw in La Loche,” Wall said.