VANCOUVER/WINNIPEG – The remote, northern Canadian community where a shooter killed four people and injured seven on Friday has long struggled under the weight of poverty, high suicide rates and disadvantages that most of the country can hardly imagine.
The isolated town of La Loche, in the western province of Saskatchewan, and its neighboring Clearwater River Dene Indian reserve, six hours away from the nearest airport, embody the dire prospects for Canada’s Aboriginals, also known as First Nations.
Unemployment stands above 20 percent in the community, suicide and addiction rates are high, homes are overcrowded and family violence is rife in the community which is mostly Metis, a culture with French and Aboriginal roots.
“If you know about this deadly mix of hopelessness and abuse and violence, and drugs and alcohol abuse, and racism and poverty, really it’s a perfect recipe for something like this to happen,” said Mark Totten, who spent five years working with Aboriginal youth in Saskatchewan, and is now a criminal justice professor at Humber College in Toronto.
Justin Trudeau, Canada’s new prime minister, in December promised a new “nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations peoples” and an inquiry into the high rates of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
Trudeau, 44, was speaking after a report found the forcible separation of Aboriginal children from their families amounted to cultural genocide.
La Loche, set beside a lake and boreal forest at the end of a highway from southern Saskatchewan, one of Canada’s wealthiest provinces due to its reserves of crude oil, potash and uranium, has a checkered history of violence.
In 2010, a man was shot dead in broad daylight across the street from the local police detachment. A year later, a mob torched a police truck and attacked two police officers.
“Things are getting kind of bad,” said Sylvia Piche, 53, who grew up in La Loche before moving to Clearwater. “I’m afraid to even walk at night.”
Mass shootings are rare, however, even in Canada’s most desperate corners.
Canadian police said Saturday that a 17-year-old youth has been charged with four counts of first degree murder, seven counts of attempted murder and unauthorized possession of a firearm. He cannot be named due to his age.
Police identified the victims as Dayne Fontaine, 17, and Drayden Fontaine, 13, teacher Adam Wood, 35, and teaching assistant Marie Janvier, 21.
“My heart was shattered, the community was shattered,” said acting Mayor Kevin Janvier, who was inaccurately reported to have lost his daughter in the school shooting.
In La Loche, which has a population of 2,600, 18 people committed suicide over a 4½-year span to January 2010, the StarPhoenix newspaper said last year. It said the annual suicide rate in the regional health district is the highest in the province.
“There’s not much future after you graduate,” said Raymond Dauvin, a longtime La Loche resident. “You have to leave town to work. And it’s difficult, because if you leave town you’re in an environment of other people who don’t speak Dene. In a way, it’s your nation up here.”
The tragedy will also raise questions about gun access in Aboriginal communities. While all firearms must be registered in Canada, the process is easier for Aboriginals who use shotguns for traditional hunting and youth under 12 can obtain access.
“Having a shotgun is a very important thing, because if you’re supporting your family with moose, maybe beaver pelts, deer, then you need guns,” said Humber’s Totten.
Still, Aboriginal communities will ask hard questions about gun security after the shooting, said Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Chief Bobby Cameron, who represents more than 70 Indian bands in the province.
In the meantime, La Loche residents are caught between traditional and modern worlds, giving rise to “unimaginable” social problems that are symptoms of the loss of identity, said Ken Coates, director of the University of Saskatchewan’s northern development center.
Elders who provide the last link to traditional Aboriginal life are dying, while television channels are easily available, offering a teasing window into an affluent southern world, he said.
“You’re stuck in this halfway place, which creates this odd (question) of, ‘Am I a northern person? Yes. But am I a Canadian in a full sense?’ ” Coates said.