On January 25 I sat down and read a National Post article titled, "‘He was not a monster. He was hurting’: La Loche shooting suspect was frequently bullied about his ears”. The article was about the 17 year old alleged high school shooter in La Loche, Saskatchewan. I found the article both deeply refreshing and disturbing. So much so that I had to share it on Facebook. I wrote: “A very interesting article on the high school shooting in La Loche. It seems community members are angry at the lack of health services rather than the shooter, which is a refreshing perspective rarely read in mainstream news. This event is a tragedy from every angle and I do not mean to diminish the horrible nature of this crime. However, there is no move to blame videos games or music or the way he dressed. Many seem to be taking this as a warning that this will happen again if health and social programs continue to get cut in communities across Canada, especially Indigenous communities. This is an important lesson I feel is often missed in these type of awful events.”
After a human tragedy the most common question people will ask is ‘why’? Interestingly, reading media coverage of the high school shooting in La Loche was immediately different. Somehow, from the media coverage, it seemed that many in the community had a deep sense of why this happened. But I started to get uneasy about the picture that was being painted by the articles I read when I watched an interview on CBC’s The National with Wab Kinew, an Indigenous rapper, author, professor and CBC personality. The interviewer Wendy Mesley’s first question seemed to be a common thread in the media relating to the tragedy in La Loche. She asked, "The thing that stuck with me in all of the news coverage was the sort of repeated message from people in La Loche, some who are related to the victims, even related to the suspect. Almost a sense of understanding of where this could have come from. Is the misery, is the hardship in some of these northern communities that intense, that people can understand where that might have come from?" Kinew responds, "I think it might be more of a reflection on the generosity of spirit of the people in La Loche, than on the social causes. Because to me what happened in La Loche is such a tragedy that we're never going to find a satisfactory answer and it's because you can't rationalize somebody taking so many lives and injuring so many others in this way. But to answer the truthful element in your question, about are the social conditions in the north and in Indigenous communities at a breaking point? I think, yeah, we've known for years in this country that Indigenous kids, in particular, face greater barriers and longer odds on the road to be successful. [...] The thing that I encourage everyone in this country to remember is that this is not a northern tragedy, this is not an Indigenous tragedy; this is a Canadian tragedy."
Kinew’s insight is helpful because it is a warning to not take every journalists interpretation at face value. Could it be that rather than really understanding why one of their youth might commit these terrible crimes, community members were just responding in a different way and with a different mind-set than we are used to? Could it be that they are forgiving people and not interested in “an eye for an eye” justice? Could it be something else entirely?
What happened in La Loche?
On January 22, 2016 a 17 year old arrived at the La Loche Community School. He shot and killed two people, Marie Janvier and Adam Wood, and injured 7 others. It was later discovered that before coming to the school he had also killed two brothers Drayden and Dayne Fontaine, who were 13 and 17 years old. It was initially reported that the shooter is related to the two brothers, however due to Canada’s Youth Criminal Justice Act, no further information has been released.
La Loche is a community of about 2,600 residents in northern Saskatchewan. It is a predominantly aboriginal community. The community school has about 150 teachers and students.
It has been reported that the young suspect was bullied and harassed in school. It has also been reported that he is facing the following charges: four counts of first-degree murder, seven counts of attempted murder and unauthorized possession of a firearm. Some articles called the incident in La Loche ‘one of the most deadly’ school shootings in Canada’s history, another said it was ‘the most deadly’.
How La Loche different than other school shooting tragedies?
First, this incident took place in the north of Canada in a mostly Indigenous community. It is easy for a lot of people in Canada, especially white Canadians, to write this off as a northern or Indigenous problem as Wab Kinew mentioned. Also, because the community is so isolated, it is not treated the same as if this happened in Vancouver, Montreal or Toronto – the logic seems to be that if there are copy-cat shootings they will probably be by another disenfranchised and alienated young Indigenous person, probably on some reserve somewhere. This might seem pessimistic, but if you read the comments sections in these online articles the sympathy for the community of La Loche or the sense of fear that this could happen soon anywhere else in Canada, simply isn’t there.
Generally, after these all-to-common types of high school killings, we are used to reading article after article labelling the shooter as crazy or deranged, hearing calls for more gun restrictions and retribution for the families against the perpetrator. Not in La Loche. The families of the two people killed at the school, Marie Janvier, a teacher’s aide, and Adam Wood, a teacher, have both spoken out.
Marie Janvier’s obituary has many beautiful stories about this 21-year old woman who clearly touched many lives. But considering that Marie was violently killed, the end of the obituary is the most beautiful and revealing, “Marie, we know you would want us to focus on the positives and to be good to each other, this we will do in your memory. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to La Loche Community School - Dene Building.” Here the family is asking for donations to be made to the very institution where their daughter was killed. Not for armed guards at the doors, or metal detectors – some of the ideas we’ve often read about after other high school shootings. This family wants students in the community to continue their education and believes that being “good to each other” is what would have been most important to their daughter.
A statement from the family of Adam Wood carried a similar message, explaining, “Rather than looking for someone to blame, or coming up with outsider opinions of reasons why this occurred, we must stop and listen to the voices of La Loche. […] The leaders and members of the community know what types of support and changes are needed. Our responsibility as a nation is to listen and respond to create lasting systemic change.”
The family of the two brothers who were killed have been quoted. According to the Toronto Star, "friends of Alicia Fontaine, the mother of the two brothers who were shot and killed in their home, say she has been telling people that she can never hate the alleged suspect. “No words will bring my babies back,””
According to the Globe & Mail, "the killings have hit hard in the close-knit town. At a Sunday service at Our Lady of the Visitation Roman Catholic Church, the slain boys’ grandparents wanted the archbishop to ask the community to forgive the shooter and pray for him and the victims."
It is probably best not to try to draw big conclusions from these statements, as one of the mainstream media’s problems with this case is the liberties they have taken to interpret the community’s wishes and feelings. However, all of those responses again have a very different tone than what we are accustomed too and I feel it is a needed perspective in understanding the tragedy.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds
Parliamentarians bowed their heads in a moment of silence for the victims of the La Loche shootings in the House of Commons on Monday January 29, 2016. That same day, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in La Loche and in a statement proclaimed that, "the federal government will be there, not just now [in the] difficult time, but in the weeks, months, and indeed years to come, as we look to grieve, to heal, and to move beyond, and thrive.” These words are hard to criticize yet, because the Trudeau government has only been in power for 3 months, however the Liberal Party’s track record since the foundation of Canada has been the same disaster for Aboriginal people as the Tories. Additionally, Trudeau did not make any concrete pledges to help the community or explain how his plans are different than the 200 years of failed and criminal government policy towards Indigenous people in Canada.
Prime Minister Trudeau continued, "The tragedy that this community went through should serve to highlight challenges that don’t just exist here but across the country. So while we grieve and support this community, we also think of communities like it across the country." I agree we need to also be thinking around communities across the country, but thought and talk are cheap. Where is the plan of action?
The mainstream media responds
The mainstream media, or bourgeois media, has also had a different approach to this story.
First, almost every article about the high school shooting mentions something about how this event is opening a bigger discussion in Canada. Things like, “[it] sparked a discussion about the need for more social services in northern communities,” or “the killings have also renewed criticism of the lack of provincial mental-health services in the North.” This is to let us know what media and government are looking for the roots of the tragedy – but are a lack of social services really the deepest root?
The mainstream media is using this story to report not only on La Loche, but problems on many reserves and rural Indigenous communities in Canada, writing about: hard drugs and gangs, astronomical suicide rates, local stories of untimely deaths, a lack of mental health services, addiction problems, a lack of activities for youth and adults, the impact of new technology, a detachment from traditional culture and language, overrepresentation of Indigenous people in Canada’s prison system, the legacy of residential schools, some even talk about the harm of colonization and the outdated and harmful Indian Act (a law in Canada that established a guardian/ward relationship between the government of Canada and Indigenous people). Generally this seems like good journalism. Trying to reach to the depths of an issue, not just blame the shooter, or his community but to understand how the community got to be where it is.
The second difference in the media tone is that it is continually criticizing itself. Many articles contain journalists and editorials reminding people of the media’s short memory and shortcomings when covering Indigenous issues. "If it bleeds it leads, the saying goes," "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," "Tuesday was a day of banding together in La Loche, but banding against the media. Many in the small northern community said they feel national reports have misrepresented the community," "I’ve left town but I’ll never forget Kiandra, and I hope the rest of Saskatchewan, and Canada doesn’t either," "We fail to ask: How did La Loche become like this?" and finally, "The small Dene community of La Loche, Sask., is exhausted. […] the media descended on the community. Now La Loche residents say it’s time for the media to go home." These or similar comments could be found in articles on CBC, Yahoo News, Global News, Huffington Post Canada, APTN, the National Post and the Globe & Mail. The common thread? That the mainstream media is not doing a good job and is not trusted by Indigenous communities. But what is the purpose of so many bourgeois news articles hawking this same idea?
The third difference in the mainstream media is that even more articles seem to be trying to put a positive spin on everything, writing about future hopes of the community. A few headlines such as, "Hope for La Loche", "In La Loche, signs of hope after Prime Minister's visit", "What 3 residents wish for La Loche's future" and "A familiar pain, a persistent hope" demonstrate this well.
The following quote from an article in the Globe & Mail titled "A familiar pain, a persistent hope" seems to weave all of these tendencies to highlight– Indigenous community problems, the media blaming itself and hope – all in one go. They wrote, "La Loche rarely makes provincial or national headlines, but when it does, there tends to be violence, fires or suicide attached to the story. People here have been dying by suicide at an alarming rate for years. In the community centre, there are photos of deceased young men and women on a suicide-prevention poster; six faces are from last year alone. The crime rate is about eight times the provincial average. Access to mental-health services and addictions treatment is limited and unpredictable. Jobs are scarce. To make matters worse, residents last year were forced to evacuate amid unprecedented wildfires in the region. This is not the only La Loche. The Globe and Mail has spoken with dozens of community members and local leaders, including many who say their hometown is being unfairly portrayed as a hopeless place where only terrible things happen. The violent crime rate has dropped 50 per cent over the past decade. Millions of provincial dollars have been put toward addressing the housing shortage, with 11 rental units currently under construction. Bingo money and corporate contributions are funding the construction of a much-anticipated youth centre. People are connected to their culture, speaking Dene and trapping. They take care of one another."
So I am left wondering what is going on? Have the government of Canada and mainstream media grown a conscience? Is it really a great time of change and hope for Indigenous people in Canada? Is the bourgeois media finally going beyond the headlines and making an effort to really educate the people of Canada about the legacy of discrimination, racism and injustice faced by native people in Canada?
It seems the community of La Loche doesn’t think the media has turned over a new leaf, otherwise why would they be kicking the media out of their community only 9 days after this tragedy?
Why is all of this deep and critical talk not a solution?
While many of these mainstream articles talk about ending unfair government policies or recognize that many of these struggles and problems come from the government’s own policies of assimilation (and two even spoke about the crimes of colonization), they still fall short. On the surface the reporters are doing their jobs, digging into the deeper issues and trying to go beyond the headlines, even being self-critical about their ways.
But with all of this, doesn’t it just reinforce the idea that this is an Indigenous problem? While Trudeau promises that progress will be made, is this just about telling non-Indigenous people in Canada, this isn’t about “you guys”, this is “their” problem. Let us work on it, you go about your daily lives now.
There is still nothing here really recognizing the criminal nature of the government of Canada in its dealings with Indigenous people. While we can mention report after report or the need to listen more to Indigenous communities – no one is fundamentally questioning how a so called “democracy” and industrialized country can have made so little advance in so long.
I do not speak for Indigenous communities and nations in Canada, I am speaking as a non-Aboriginal person who grew up in Canada being told that this country was something to be proud of, that we are amongst the most equal and the most free. I am tired of non-Indigenous people being lied to by the government and told to leave this issue alone because it is too complex. I am tired of hearing other non-Indigenous people in Canada repeat those racist lies without even trying to put themselves in the shoes of the people of these nations, without listening to them or caring to understand.
How has the government been able to underfund Aboriginal education, child services and communities for so long? How has the government been able to delay the settlement of land claims and treaties while giving corporations free-reign to drill, mine and decimate the land? How has the government been able to maintain its “guardian/ward” relationship with Indigenous people rather than working with Indigenous people on a nation-to-nation basis? How is it still the government of Canada who gets to decide who is a “status Indian”, not the nations and communities themselves? How can the government and journalists talk about “hope” in such an ‘I have a distant dream’ kind of way like the things Indigenous people are asking for are so impossible?
It is not up to non-Indigenous people in Canada to tell Indigenous people what they need. However, we can echo the demands of Aboriginal people to the government of Canada, as well as the provinces and territories. I think we can also agree that communities needing to organize bake sales for mental health or any life-saving social programs is not acceptable in the 21st century – the government is obligated to provide proper funding and compensation to these communities, with no strings attached. We can demand that First Nations, Inuit and Metis people be allowed to decide their own futures, also with no strings attached. This means that the government of Canada recognize the right of Indigenous nation in Canada to self-determination.
Tamara Hansen on Twitter: @THans01
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