The silence had held for months, and there was hope among the Samson Cree – the long simmering violence that had claimed so many of their youth may soon pass, some thought, bringing peace at last to a community that has known crime like few others.
That reprieve, however, didn't last. The silence was pierced early Monday morning, first at 1:30 a.m. and again at 3 a.m., by shootings at two local homes.
As dawn broke, hearts sank across the tightly clustered Samson town site – a five-year-old boy had been killed in his sleep, a woman was sent to hospital and at least one gunman, maybe more, was on the run. The grief came too soon for many here, including the family of Asia Saddleback, shot non-fatally in 2008 and 23 months old at the time, and that of Preston Thom, a 15-year-old gunned down last Christmas.
Each a tragedy, each another blow to the embattled first nation of about 3,300.
“It is indeed a sad day, and a dark day, for the people of Samson Cree Nation,” Chief Marvin Yellowbird said. He's in mourning as much as anyone in his community – the dead boy, who The Globe and Mail isn't identifying at the request of elders and RCMP, is Mr. Yellowbird's grandson.
“Anytime you have a family or distant family member pass on tragically, as with today, it affects me, it affects everybody,” the chief said. “The community at large is affected equally, and we're devastated.”
Little has been made public about the events of Monday morning. In the first shooting, police say a gun was fired at a home in Samson, one of four communities that make up the Hobbema reserve of 12,000 people. No one was injured.
Around 3 a.m., an unspecified number of bullets – neighbours say three – were fired into a bungalow where the boy slept, RCMP say. He was struck and killed. Another woman inside was hit and slightly wounded. Whether she's the boy's mother wasn't made clear.
One resident said the people living in the home had moved in recently after a person with known gang involvement moved out. Police and Chief Yellowbird both said they couldn't confirm that.
In each case, as with that of young Asia Saddleback, the bullets were fired blindly into a home from outside the home.
There have been no arrests in the most-recent shootings.
Police stopped short of saying definitively that the shootings were related. There are about six loosely organized gangs in the area, police say, and RCMP have “not ruled out possible gang activity” in Monday's shootings, Superintendent Curtis Zablocki said.
Along with the hunt for those who pulled a trigger, police are faced with two other concerns.
The first is payback, vigilante retribution that could add to the bloodshed. “Retaliation is a concern for us. Again, we haven't confirmed this is gang related, but we need to take all precautions,” Supt. Zablocki said, adding unspecified “measures” will be taken to boost community safety.
Also of concern is its own Mounties' health. There is a documented history of post-traumatic stress disorder among Mounties working in Hobbema, which has a soaring crime rate. Officers there tend to be new recruits. “We will be looking after their needs as we move forward,” the superintendent said.
Across the community, the frustration is palpable. Many say it's obvious in the small first nation who the gang leaders are, but complain of a lack of will on the part of police and the band council, and a fear among other residents to speak out.
The band is rich with oil royalties, much of it held in trust for young members who receive large lump sum payments when they turn 18. That money is often squandered, and many say it fuels alcohol and drug addiction problems on the reserve.
“Somebody has to do something about these boys. Round them up,” said Cory Pruden, 35, the father of the 15-year-old killed last Christmas Eve.
Mr. Pruden has yet to visit the grave of his son. He's not ready to do so. Yet the death of the boy Monday roused his grief once more.
“I'm so sorry,” he said, as if speaking to the family. “Because it's a five-year-old.”