No one knew where La Loche was. Most Canadians had never heard of it.
Now it’s on the map in the most awful of circumstances.
This tiny community of some 3,000 Dene people in northern Saskatchewan exploded on the national consciousness last Friday with the echo of a gun that took the lives of two brothers and two teachers and injured seven others. A 17-year-old male has been charged with four counts of first degree murder and seven counts of attempted murder.
No one knows yet. But maybe you could list an accumulation of many social stresses that define life in a remote, northern native village, conditions that threaten to drive a teenager over the edge. This is where suicide is three times the national average, where there is widespread unemployment, substance abuse, lack of services, and lack of opportunities. And perhaps, at the centre of it all, lack of hope.
La Loche isn’t just a forgotten community. It’s invisible. Tragedies – past suicides – simply go unheard of. They are blips of life unaccounted for as mainstream Canadians grab a latte and hurry on.
But fighting against a stereotypical image, the tight-knit community has been making strides with a jump in high school graduates, a carpentry apprenticeship program, and commitments to improve the town and foster a healthier lifestyle. And, according to reports, it is a credit to the residents’ nature that there was far less anger toward the accused as profound sadness and a need to learn from what happened.
In December, the newly elected Trudeau government committed to resetting the relationship between First Nations and Ottawa. That started with the launch of a national public enquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women. The government also promised to add $515 million annually to funding for First Nations education, lift the 2 per cent cap on funding for aboriginal programs, and implement all 94 recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
While these commitments find traction the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, following a nine-year study, ruled this week that the federal government discriminates against First Nation children on reserves by failing to provide the same level of welfare services that exist for all other Canadian children. Yet it is on reserves where the need for support services for children is the greatest.
Lack of services translates into more children in the welfare system. Some 48 per cent of all children in foster care across Canada are aboriginal. The brutal truth is that there are more First Nations children taken from their families and put into care now than at the height of the residential school system!
If the Trudeau government increases the funding necessary for adequate and sustainable support services then First Nation families like those in La Loche can get the support they need for their children so that fostering rates are lowered. It’s well known that the lack of psychiatric and other mental health services has prevented opportunities to learn healthy behaviour.
First Nations people are just as capable and skilled as anyone else. Many native bands, located where they can take advantage of the wider Canadian society, have enterprises in shopping centre developments, wineries, mining ventures, casinos, food production, silviculture, timber harvesting, gravel pits, hotel and convention centres, and northern airlines. They have careers as doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, hair dressers, and fashion designers.
There needs to be a re-design of the funding and delivery of the child care system on reserves so that First Nations people are given the adequate, culturally appropriate services needed. It should be done in a way that enhances their dignity with skills training and employment giving hope to a future that leads somewhere.