Nine months after a mass shooting devastated the community, villagers are trying to move on in La Loche, Sask.
I had the opportunity to visit the small town, just one day after a teen pleaded guilty to the Jan. 22 shooting.
People were kind, waving at the 650 CKOM news van as I drove by. Many were curious as to why I had come up. They asked me what the big story was this time and how long I had planned to stay.
I told them I wanted to look at how the community was recovering, moving forward after what happened in the winter.
The conversations were enlightening. People told me how life has always been tough in La Loche. They bemoaned the lack of jobs, as the natural resource sector has slowed down in recent years.
But what they wouldn’t talk about, at all, was the shooting.
It’s referred to by most as “the incident” or “Jan. 22.”
Conversation moves on quickly, as residents prefer to talk about the present, rather than what’s already happened.
The chats also died off quickly in the convenience stores once people realized I was the one who came in the news vehicle.
Once the microphone appeared, I was told someone else would talk.
“They won’t miss you,” was the first thing La Loche’s new mayor Robert St. Pierre said to me when we met.
The 44-year-old driving instructor invited me into his home for a cup of coffee. There wasn’t much in the way of an alternative, seeing as there’s no cafe in town.
St. Pierre was one of several who were puzzled as to why I would come to La Loche on a Saturday.
“There’s not too much out there,” he said. “That’s why the kids are bored. ‘There’s nothing to do.’ You hear that all the time.”
I learned those who had the means to do so often left La Loche on the weekend, heading to Meadow Lake, Prince Albert or Saskatoon for shopping and recreation.
Aside from grocery and convenience stores, there are few options for shoppers in La Loche.
You won’t find a restaurant, or a hairdresser.
Those who can’t get out of town end up wandering around on the street, looking for something interesting to do.
“We need to have small businesses,” St. Pierre said. “We need a place where you can go get a haircut. We need these… basic necessities for a community our size.”
St. Pierre decided to stay put the day I showed up. He hopes more will start doing the same as he gets to work on bringing business to the village.
BORED YOUTH A BIG PROBLEM
The lack of options in town was a common topic among my interviews. Every person I spoke with emphasized the need for more youth engagement.
Holly Toulejour, born and raised in La Loche, said too many programs are offered during the day and not the evening.
“Your nine to five hours are just not working for the population that needs the most help,” she said. “Having more after school programming and weekends, you can get to those kids who are bullied.”
Toulejour was hired as one of the new social workers at La Loche Community School after the shooting.
She says more programs could help build a relationship with students who feel isolated, possibly preventing another tragedy.
“I think more could be done,” she said. “I challenge our agencies to do more.”
NEW FRIENDSHIP CENTRE COULD HELP
Mayor St. Pierre said his council will be working to increase the options for youth, including movie nights and socials at the community’s brand new Friendship Centre.
The new facility was in the works before Jan. 22, but federal and provincial funding allowed the building to be built to a bigger scale at a total pricetag nearing $1.5 million. It opened in July.
The Friendship Centre is 5,000 sq. ft. on the first floor, with an additional 2,500 sq. ft. of space on the second. It houses several community services, including suicide prevention and victims services.
This replaces an 800 sq. ft. building that was struggling to serve the community.
“It enables us to bring the programming to the individual, rather than the individual coming to the program,” said Leonard Montgrand, the centre’s executive director.
He said the centre also offers recreational activities to the community’s youth, including summer camp programs that have been very popular.
But at the same time, Montgrand says it’s more difficult to get youth interested.
“With today’s electronic age, it’s hard to keep a child entertained,” he said. “That’s where we need to try and make positive change… we can still do a lot more for our kids.”
The challenges related to entertainment and engagement are what contribute to issues like alcohol abuse, bullying and tragedies like Jan. 22 and northern suicides.
Montgrand, a father of teenagers, says the current state of affairs makes him worry.
“I’m afraid for my children,” he said. “I don’t want my children, or the next generation, to grow up like that.”
The news surrounding a rash of suicides in the La Ronge and Stanley Mission areas have scared Montgrand, especially looking at the ages of the girls.
“These kids are the same age as my daughter, it scares the hell out of me,” he said, noting La Loche has had their own suicide problems in the past. “We understand. We feel for those communities.”
HOPE FOR THE NEXT GENERATION
Despite the fears and challenges, I couldn’t help but notice the optimism everyone had for the future.
Montgrand said he’s seeing more children accessing higher levels of education, creating more positive role models for the next generation.
“We’re trying to show them the positive lifestyle is out there,” he said. “These people [who get their education] will come back to us and they will make positive change.”
Toulejour is one of those returnees. She went to Saskatoon to pursue her education, but moved back shortly before the shooting.
She said city life is a tough adjustment for many who were raised in the village and she feels safer in La Loche.
“This is our home,” she said. “I feel safe in the high school. I feel safe in the street.”
Working at the school, Toulejour is seeing more intelligent children coming through the system, giving her hope for the future.
“A lot of the kids are smarter, more mature than some adults I know,” she said. “My eight year old amazes me every day with the stuff he knows, stuff you should be hearing from an adult.”
La Loche is a remarkable community. Few in Saskatchewan can fathom what they face on a daily basis, from harsh conditions to mass unemployment to isolation and a lack of options.
But what’s truly astounding is the community’s resilience. Despite all they’ve been through, the smiles on their faces don’t disappear. They’re kind. They’re generous. And most of all, they’re positive.
There’s a lot of work to be done, and they’re the first to admit they could use some more help from the outside.
But La Loche will remain, and if the people have anything to do with it, La Loche will improve.