Four people are dead and two are critically injured after a mass shooting at a remote Saskatchewan school, an institution residents say has been the community’s brightest hope.
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Everyone in the community of 2,600 knows someone who has been directly affected by the shooting, said Chief Teddy Clark, of the Clearwater River Dene Nation. Kevin Janvier, acting mayor of La Loche, told a Saskatchewan radio station on Friday evening that his daughter, Marie, was one of the victims.
“The school has been a safe haven for a lot of our children,” said Chief Clark. “The community is devastated. People are asking questions and searching for answers. No one was prepared for something like this.”
The community, which borders the Clearwater River Dene Nation, has an employment rate of only 20 per cent and has dealt with tragedy in the past. The town has garnered headlines over the years for its high rate of suicides.
Last year, the Saskatoon StarPhoenix reported that La Loche and nearby communities averaged 43.4 suicide deaths per 100,000 people between 2008 and 2012 – several times higher than the average annual rate for the prairie province as a whole.
Signs that something was wrong in La Loche emerged when the town’s sole high school instituted a lockdown around 1 p.m. local time on Friday – but it wasn’t until four hours later that the severity of the tragedy became clearer. News of the mass shooting was met with shock from leaders in the community and across the nation. In Davos, Switzerland, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the shooting had created the “darkest of days.”
Students who were at the school describe the first moments of confusion and fear when shots were fired around 1 p.m. local time.
“Dad, there’s a shooting at the school,” Chief Clark read in a text message from his daughter on Friday afternoon.
A student just returning from lunch says he fled, along with his friends.
“Run, bro, run!” Noel Desjarlais-Thomas, 16, recalled his friends saying to him as they fled, urging him to get out. “There’s a shotgun! There’s a shotgun! They were just yelling to me. And then I was hearing those shots, too, so of course I started running.”
The Grade 10 student told reporters that he believes one of his friends was among the dead: “I saw him fall down. That’s when I started running.”
Local residents who spoke with The Globe and Mail said they believe the shooting began at a home in the town before moving to the high school. RCMP has said that investigators are at the high school and at a second location.
The high school was on lockdown for much of Friday, as was a neighbouring elementary school. About 900 students attend both schools. The chief says that some of his children are close to the victims.
The town, set on the edge of Lac La Loche, is a former trading post about 600 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon, at the end of Highway 155. The vast majority of the population in the Dene village is indigenous.
Mr. Trudeau expressed his condolences at a hastily called news conference. “The country’s heart is breaking for the people of La Loche, Saskatchewan, today,” he said.
“Obviously this is every parent’s worst nightmare. When I spoke to community leaders, they obviously expressed that the community is reeling.”
The Prime Minister added that he had been told the alleged shooter was in custody and police “assured me the situation is under control.”
According to Chief Clark, the suspect in the shooting is known in the community, but his identity has yet to be confirmed by authorities. “The accused who was involved in the shooting was a surprise to everyone. He was a good kid. It’s one of those, ‘Who would think?’ moments,” he said.
Former mayor Georgina Jolibois was opening her new constituency office in the town when the shooting happened. She was elected MP for Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River in the fall. Like most local residents, she once attended the high school.
“As the former mayor of La Loche, I am shocked and saddened by the shooting,” she said in a statement. “The shooting hits close to home for me as my family members attend the school.”
Premier Brad Wall shared the anguish of many in his province earlier in the day. “Words cannot express my shock and sorrow at the horrific events today,” he said.