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Opinion We fail to ask: How did La Loche become like this?

Molly Thomas is a Regina-born host/producer for Context with Lorna Dueck and a Master's candidate at the Munk School of Global Affairs. In 2010, she was part of a team that travelled to La Loche and created the award-winning documentary Denendeh.

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A week ago, the remote, northern, Dene-populated village of La Loche could rarely be pointed out by Canadians – nor most Saskatchewan residents like myself. But one devastatingly, violent day has put it on the world map.

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If it bleeds it leads, the saying goes – so we all know about it now because four lives have been lost, seven people are in critical condition, a 17-year-old male is now in custody and a community is reeling with so many questions. It's the worst high-school shooting in Canadian history.

I first covered La Loche when I was a journalism student five years ago. It has rampant suicide rates, widespread alcohol and drug addictions and shockingly high levels of unemployment. When journalists make the long trek north, it's often as complete outsiders with a quick-hit news mentality and rarely a holistic perspective on the problem.

Our documentary team left Regina in 2010, research in hand, two cars full of camera equipment and youthful ambition to tell a new narrative. This is difficult to do in a village where the flaws are strung out on the streets.

Yes, there are drunks who stroll along La Loche Avenue from morning to night. Yes, there is a rotating triangle between the welfare line, the liquor store and the community bar. Yes, there were people in the streets that warned us that we would get shot for filming. Reality is raw in La Loche, rarely watered down for strangers. But what most people fail to ask about this community is: how did it become like this?

Once a proud aboriginal people who lived off the land, the Dene community, we learned, has constantly been infiltrated by outsiders. The first colonizers came to La Loche in 1778, changing the traditional lifestyle.

The Hudson's Bay Company set up shop 13 years later with white men becoming boss in the region. Residential schools played a crippling role in an understanding and appreciation of education. In 1944, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation came into provincial power. Well-loved premier Tommy Douglas was at the helm, but many of his government policies hurt aboriginals in the north.

For example, the 1949 Northern Administration Act injected white workers into northern communities, assuming aboriginals were incapable of contributing to society. That unfortunate narrative seems to have stuck. Even in 2010, our documentary team saw mainly white people in positions of power.

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If you slowly strip people of their independence, won't they eventually give up?

In recent years, a lack of jobs and opportunities have stifled young people with dreams. Many are considered traitors if they leave for education in the south. I'll never forget community members referring to these students as apples – red on the outside but white on the inside. Many elders equate education with a loss of culture, so young people are discouraged from buying into a "white man's world." Meanwhile, the kids and youth who feel far from their ancestral roots still struggle to fit into a colonial definition of success.

I wish this were the case only in La Loche. Unfortunately, La Loche is simply the sacrificial lamb in a wider, more significant story.

The tragic shootings on Jan. 22 force us to examine the root causes of Canadian problems in northern communities. Let us hope we start to understand the depth of our necessary national repair. Canada's North is finally in the spotlight: Will we hear the cries of our communities?

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