Skip to main content
la loche shootings

A resident of La Loche, Sask., pays his respects on Jan. 23, 2016, to the victims of a school shooting.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

The Saskatchewan government's response to violence and mental-health issues in the North is coming under scrutiny, days after four people were shot dead and seven injured in the remote and largely aboriginal community of La Loche.

According to the province, officials are working their way through a litany of issues facing the community. Even before the shooting, a crime-reduction team was dispatched to La Loche in the past year and the town's high school underwent a violence threat assessment. However, officials could not say what the team found or what threat level was assessed for the school.

Two of those killed and those wounded were shot in the Dene community's sole high school. In 2014, teacher Janice Wilson came forward with two accounts of violent encounters with students. Don Morgan, the province's education minister, said then that "nobody should have to go through" what Ms. Wilson experienced and vowed to ensure nothing like it ever happened again.

"As recently as Saturday, we've been in touch with Ms. Wilson, we've been asking her for advice on what steps would be most meaningful for addressing the needs of teachers in La Loche," Donna Johnson, Saskatchewan's assistant deputy education minister, said Monday.

In 2015, the Saskatoon StarPheonix reported on a suicide rate in the La Loche area and nearby communities that averaged 43.4 deaths per 100,000 people between 2008 and 2012 – several times higher than the average annual rate for the prairie province as a whole.

Immediate medical aid is difficult to get in La Loche. The town is part of a sprawling health authority served by 13 mental-health and addictions specialists – evidence of the community's remoteness in a province grappling with last week's deadly shooting.

A position for an emergency duty worker has been unfilled since September, leaving open a job created to investigate cases of abuse and help families in need of assistance in the isolated town.

The provincial service centre in La Loche currently has 10 workers on payroll, five help with income assistance, four are support staff and one is currently a child and family resource worker. The empty emergency duty worker job is an on-call position, requiring someone in the community to be available weekday nights and weekends, for a salary that tops out at $27.45 per hour.

Critics are calling into question whether the 11 funded positions are enough for 2,600 people in an area that suffers an outsized suicide rate.

A 17-year-old was charged with multiple counts of first-degree murder and attempted murder after the shootings Friday that left the town in shock and reverberated across the country.

Saskatchewan's NDP Leader was one of many federal, provincial and local leaders on Monday to speak about the need for more resources in La Loche and isolated communities like it.

"Hundreds of families in La Loche are waiting for affordable housing, leaving existing homes desperately overcrowded. Access to a healing centre and other mental health and addiction help is sparse," said Cam Broten. "We're failing these kids and these families."

The head of the La Loche Native Friendship Centre also lamented a litany of social ills, from the housing shortage and dearth of mental-health services to a lack of employment opportunities.

Leonard Montgrand, the centre's executive director, said there is significant demand for the small pool of jobs and training programs in La Loche, pointing to a recent federally funded heavy-equipment operator training program that drew more than 100 applications for just eight spots.

"We need more funding. We need more infrastructure. We need community members to be able to develop and become entrepreneurs. We have to take back the community," he said of the centre.

Ralph Goodale, the federal Public Safety Minister, visited the community over the weekend. On Monday, he said that much of his discussions in the community had centred on La Loche's longer-term issues.

"They focused on pretty basic bread and butter issues, like the lack of a proper youth centre and recreational facilities in the community, housing conditions in the community, a sense of isolation from the rest of the province and the rest of the country," he said in the foyer of the House of Commons.

As an example of the community's isolation, Fort MacMurray, Alta., which is only about 100 kilometres west of La Loche, requires a circuitous drive of nearly 10 hours.

Like so many remote, predominately indigenous communities across Canada, La Loche is overwhelming young. As of 2011, nearly half the population was 19 years of age or younger. About five years ago, a local survey found that what the town's youth desired above all else was a community centre geared toward them.

Mr. Montgrand said that after several years of fundraising, much of it coming from bingo games and corporate sponsorship from a pair of resource companies, the native organization is now building a youth centre.

"We have to sit down with the federal and provincial governments," he said. "At times, we sit down and we get all these nods and agreements, but then six months down the road, there's another crisis and we're back to square one again. … We're in the trenches … We know what we need in the community. A lot of the things we need are simple things."