Archbishop Murray Chatlain, in green robes and a beaded crucifix around his neck, stood before a congregation of 250 people in La Loche on Sunday with a message: Do not be angry at the teenage boy accused of killing four people in this northern community last week.
Two of the four who died were teenage brothers. Their grandparents wanted the archbishop to ask their friends and neighbours to forgive the shooter and pray for him and the victims.
“One of the traditions in this Dene community is that we have prayer intentions at the beginning of mass,” the archbishop said after the service. “The family itself offered the [prayer] intention.”
The grandparents attended the Sunday morning service at Our Lady of the Visitation Roman Catholic Church. The congregation sang in Dene and English before and during the service. Some adults held children in their laps. The worn wooden pews, painted blue, were full. Community members also prayed from the church’s balcony. They wore winter coats in the nippy building. Candles burned at the front of the church.
Drayden Fontaine, 13, and Dayne Fontaine, 17, were killed in a yellow home on the shore of Lac La Loche. The alleged shooter then killed two adults at the La Loche Community School. Politicians in the town are calling for the school to be torn down.
“The hope is that there is not just attention [on La Loche] today, but government [will continue to pay attention] over the years ahead for the people that are genuinely looking for some healing and help,” the archbishop, who led this church between 2000 and 2001 and can speak a limited amount of Dene, said after mass.
The mother of the two deceased teenagers posted on Facebook this weekend: “My heart shattered into a million pieces,” she said. “So sad I don’t have no more babies.”
The 17-year-old accused shooter cannot be named under the Youth Criminal Justice Act. He has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder and seven counts of attempted murder.
The RCMP allege that the accused killed two brothers Friday in a part of town known as Other Village. A faded white fence surrounds the yard, where a handful of poplar and spruce trees are growing. A small boat and two swing sets – one broken – are also in the yard. A light is on in the basement, as well as some on the main floor. Christmas lights are strung around a utility pole in the yard.
The alleged shooter then went to the La Loche Community School, where he shot a number of staff and students early Friday afternoon, RCMP believe. Marie Janvier was declared deceased at the school. She was a 21-year-old rookie teacher’s aide. Adam Wood, a 35-year-old teacher from Uxbridge, Ont., was transported to hospital where he was later declared dead. He started at the La Loche school in September. Seven others were hit. One of the wounded will undergo surgery Monday, a relative told the hundreds gathered at a vigil Sunday night.
Georgina Jolibois, the Member of Parliament for Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River, said the school should be demolished.
“Tear down the building, rebuild the building,” she said. “There’s so much pain, so much trauma. They need to rebuild.
“The families are hurting, the youth are hurting, the community is hurting. The north is hurting,” she said. “When you listen to the community, when you listen to the youth, when you listen to the elders, and the pain – they will say that also.”
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall came to La Loche Sunday to meet with the community. After getting together with community leaders, he walked side by side with other dignitaries as they placed a single flower arrangement in the snow in front of the memorial at the La Loche Community School.
The community, he said, needs support now and in the years to come, Mr. Wall told residents standing in front of the school. “You will not be walking through this alone.” Mr. Wall said that counselling resources are being provided for the community and he encouraged people who needed help to reach out.
In an earlier press conference, he said there have been some difficult discussions on when to reopen the school.
“The first parameter would be not until every single student and every single member of the staff and parents and grandparents feel that it is a safe place. And if that takes more of a presence from police, or if it takes something else, the provincial government, the government of Saskatchewan is going to be there to provide it, not just for the short term, but for as long as it’s deemed necessary, ” he said.
Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde, federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, Ms. Jolibois and La Loche’s acting mayor Kevin Janvier joined Mr. Wall at the memorial. They spoke with residents, shook hands, offered hugs and posed for pictures.
Mr. Goodale told reporters that the government must listen to the community and learn from this incident and “respond appropriately.”
“We need to rebuild the resilience. We need to make sure that the safety and security systems are appropriate and strong. We need to make sure that those who are wounded and suffering are properly taken care of, both in the physical sense and the psychological sense. And we have to find the long-term solutions.”
“This needs to be a very clear message to us all collectively as a country, that there are issues that need to be resolved and we all need to be part of the solution.”
Chief Bellegarde also said that there needs to be a focus on the long term.
“And how do you have a long-term strategy to end violence? That’s the ultimate goal, violence in our communities,” he said. “We start thinking about the gap we always refer to, between the quality of life between First Nations people and the rest of society. And this tragedy speaks to the need to really work together to develop that long-term strategy, provide hope for our young people.”
Ronnie Lemaigre, who is heavily involved in the community and church, believes the mother of the deceased brothers dropped them off at school Friday morning. She then left La Loche, flying to her job at the McArthur River uranium mine, he said. She returned Friday because of the shootings.
The family of the accused has had limited contact with the teen, the archbishop said. The teenager is scheduled to appear in court Monday in Meadow Lake.
David Ruelling’s niece and nephew were at the school when the shooting began. The students described a terrifying scene to Mr. Ruelling in which the gunman tried to enter the classrooms and shot through a door.
In the nephew’s classroom, as the danger became clearer, the lights were turned off and the door was locked.
“[My nephew] said the shooter checked the doorknob and when he found it locked, he just kept going. He was shooting as he was going down the hallway,” said Mr. Ruelling, himself a teacher at the Clearwater River Dene Nation School, 14 kilometres from the La Loche Community School. Mr. Ruelling’s school was also put into lockdown on Friday as a result of events in La Loche.
His niece told him students were screaming and crying during the shooting.
“The students originally thought it was just a fight. Then they heard popping sounds,” he said. In his 14-year-old niece’s classroom, the gunman shot through the classroom door, leaving glass embedded in his niece’s arm.
“Everybody’s in shock. A school is the place where everybody thought kids would be safe. It’s just sudden and horrible,” Mr. Ruelling said.
La Loche, like many northern communities in Saskatchewan, is plagued by substance abuse, unemployment and suicide. La Loche belongs to the Keewatin Yatthé Regional Health Authority. The area’s population is overwhelming young, with 27 per cent of the population less than 15 years old, and only seven per cent older than 65, according to the agency’s most recent annual report. La Loche is an isolated Dene community in northwest Saskatchewan with roots that precede the fur trade.
Ninety per cent of the population is aboriginal, the report said. The area has almost three times the proportion of houses that need major repair and close to five times the rate of crowding, with more than one person per room, compared to the rest of province, the agency said.
The median after-tax income is $17,320 a year, which is nearly $12,000 less than the provincial average. La Loche, which is close to the Alberta border, is about 600 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon.
The RCMP said it received several calls from teachers and students around 1 p.m. local time Friday, reporting a shooter in the school. The detachment is about one kilometre from the school. The front door had “damage consistent” with discharging a firearm, Superintendent Grant St. Germaine said Saturday. The officers estimate the alleged shooter ran through the school firing for about eight or nine minutes before the officers arrived.
The glass on one of the front doors has a hole in it and the glass on the next two doors appears to be damaged. RCMP members apprehended a teen at gunpoint. At around 1:15 p.m., officers received information about problems at the yellow house where the brothers were killed. That home is about one kilometre from the school, in the opposite direction of the RCMP detachment.
With reports from Wendy Stueck, Sunny Dhillon, Ingrid Peritz and CPReport Typo/Error