Ripples of colonialism

The neglected North: making sense of the La Loche shootings

Photo: Raymond Dauvin

Candles are still flickering in the wake of a horrendous tragedy that struck the small northern Dene community of La Loche, Saskatchewan. A shooting that began in a home and later entered the community’s school left four dead, seven wounded and a 17-year-old boy charged with four counts of first-degree murder and seven counts of attempted murder on the afternoon of Jan. 22.

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My relationship with La Loche is brief. About two years ago, I had a small budget that allowed me to organize creative writing workshops for Indigenous youth in remote communities. My heart was set on the small village at the end of Highway 155; La Loche was one of the places that would most benefit from artistic influence, I thought. The small community has a population of just under 3,000 people and is 650 kilometers north of Saskatoon in Treaty 8 territory. Unfortunately, in the end, the program didn’t garner the kind of attention it required in order to manifest.

After some light research, I learned that La Loche had a few amenities: a Friendship Centre with employment development, capacity building, and family support as well as a community justice program; some access to the regional health authority (Keewatin Yatthe); and library services.

But living in the North is still a challenge. Access to necessities, such as safe drinking water, quality educational resources, and affordable living conditions prove to be a constant uphill battle for our northern neighbours countrywide. The lack of infrastructure and business promotes poverty and joblessness, in contrast to the employment opportunities that enrich and empower other communities.

Clearwater River bridge
CLS Research Office

In 2005, La Loche had a 26.4 per cent unemployment rate, whereas Saskatchewan overall had an average of 5.6 per cent. Further, those who were employed made a median of $11,912, whereas Saskatchewan’s overall median was over double that, at $23,755. In 2011, the unemployment rate in La Loche dipped slightly, to an average of 22.3 per cent.

The high cost of living in northern communities has taken social media by storm with countless photos of the outrageous prices of groceries and other household necessities, even though some food in the North is subsidized by the federal government through the Nutrition North Canada Program. Earlier this month, Carolyn Bennett, minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, promised to look further into this matter.

A community with little support

Perhaps the most frightening proof of the challenges faced by those living in the remote North can be found in the high suicide rates among young people. Connie Cheecham, a support worker for the La Loche Strengthening Families Program, suggested the community faced a state of emergency when it came to youth mental health in an interview with Postmedia News last year.

In fact, between 2005 and 2010, 18 people took their lives and many more made the attempt. It has been suggested that one of the main contributing factors could be the loss of cultural practices, particularly language. The community has experienced a colossal decline in the number of Dene speakers since the early 1980s. As of early 2015, the community has no suicide prevention worker or fluent Dene-speaking health staff.

When youth come forward with suicide-related struggles, they are sent to bigger towns and cities to the south, which can put them in the community spotlight. I have a friend who works in mental health and addiction services in Regina, and he is cautious about maintaining the confidentiality of each of his patients. This, I imagine, is a lot easier to do in a city with an estimated population of 237,758. It can be a struggle to have the courage to reach out for help, especially when the help removes people from their community.

There’s nothing new in suggesting that language loss affects many Indigenous communities, but in a place that doesn’t even have a hotel, restaurants, or entertainment for residents, it comes as no surprise that many turn to alcohol and substance use. With such limited resources, La Loche’s “downtown” consists of a few bars and a liquor store within walking distance of the elementary school.

Many of La Loche’s youth are likely exposed, like their peers in other First Nations, to the effects of cultural loss and the resultant response of substance use to cope with systems of colonialism. According to a 2011 census report, La Loche’s 810 youth aged 5 to 19 years old make up nearly one-third of the population.

The loss of identity suffered by these young people, as well as the isolation and lack of resources, separates this account of violence from other shootings we so often hear about in the United States. La Loche has a rich hunting and fishing history, but few young people participate in these activities. Access to guns is common in northern communities, where hunting is a traditional means of subsistence.

“Most shooters in the U.S. are not dealing with systemic issues of oppression,” Dr. Robert Innes, assistant professor in Indigenous Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, told me. “Whatever they are dealing with is typically on an individual basis. In La Loche, this is not the case, as the high rate of youth suicide demonstrates, as does the high level of dysfunctional behaviours caused by a whole slew of oppressive acts against their community.”

What is glaringly apparent is the lack of government-funded mental health and support systems, as well as traditional and cultural practices, that would aid a community suffering from the legacy of colonization. The entire community suffers when youth are not properly supported.

Shaping the future

Our young people deserve resources and support. They deserve opportunities that enrich their self-worth and, in turn, their communities. They deserve to access their cultural history and language in a healthy and encouraging environment. They deserve to have access to artistic influences that other Saskatchewan towns and cities benefit from. Above all, they deserve to take pride in themselves and the places they come from.

In a community with an extreme lack of support for its members and youth, along with heavy and direct impacts from colonialism that still ripple through the lives of each Dene member, it’s little wonder why a young person would carry out an act of violence.

Fellow Canadians and the world ought to start taking into account the dark history of assimilation to better understand how it bleeds out from our youth in present circumstances. This is not an isolated crisis. The neglected North deserves humane living conditions and adequate support programs now more than ever. It is a community’s call for help to our country and to the world, and I sure hope our governments are ready to listen.

May the community travel the path of healing in peace.

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