LA LOCHE, SASKATCHEWAN – Residents of the remote Canadian town of La Loche, having softened frozen cemetery ground with bonfires, prepared to bury their loved ones as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrived on Friday at the site of Canada’s worst mass shooting in a decade.
Trudeau’s visit comes a week after a shooter killed four people and wounded seven at a home and high school, and a day before funerals were to begin in the aboriginal Saskatchewan town.
“It was an extremely touching visit for me,” Trudeau said, in a soft voice choked with emotion. “We met an extraordinarily resilient community of people here in La Loche.”
The prime minister laid flowers at a makeshift memorial in snow outside the school, and met privately with family members of the victims.
Trudeau, elected in October, has pledged to repair relations with Canada’s 1.4 million aboriginals, who make up 5 percent of the population but are disproportionately victims of violent crime and incarceration.
A 17-year-old boy has been charged in the shootings. Local media said the teen had been taunted about his large ears, and during the shootings spared students who had been kind to him.
Two brothers, a teacher and teaching assistant were killed.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in Quebec City for meetings, offered Canada his country’s prayers.
“But we also take heart from the knowledge that Canadians are a very brave and resilient people. No gunman can change that and we are very proud to have you as friends.”
La Loche’s population of 2,600 is about 90 percent Metis and Dene, and the Dene language is widely spoken in addition to English.
The shooting has sparked debate about how to improve life in communities like La Loche, where the legacy of colonization and an abusive residential school system have fueled high rates of suicide, addiction and unemployment, despite nearby oil and mining projects.
Asked by reporters about aid for La Loche and communities like it, Trudeau said he came to listen and had brought several cabinet ministers to see the needs firsthand.
Trudeau’s first budget is expected in March or April.
“It’s a big tragic situation right now and it takes this kind of a thing to open our eyes,” said Gilbert Benjamin, a relative of one shooting victim.
“We’ve been crying for so many years. We are struggling, we need help and nobody seems to look at it.”