01/26/2016 17:11 EST | Updated 01/26/2017 00:12 EST

People ponder the pathway forward for La Loche after school shooting

LA LOCHE, Sask. — Despite the pain and grief following a mass shooting that has torn at the fabric of a northern Saskatchewan town, there is hope among its leaders that what happened will be a catalyst for change.

The violent deaths of four people at a school and in a home have exposed La Loche and its social problems to national scrutiny.

Leonard Montgard, executive director of the La Loche Friendship Centre, suggests locals should look at it as a call to action.

"The stigma that comes with all the things that happen in our community, the negative things, it discourages people from coming to our community to set up," he said a few days after the shooting.

"And now it's dependent upon our community members to go forth and set up their own businesses. We have to take that direction."

La Loche is a town, not a reserve. But more than 90 per cent of the region's population self-identify as aboriginal, the Keewatin Yatthe Regional Health Authority said in its 2014-15 annual report.

A lack of opportunity in the community of about 3,000 has been cited as a reason behind crime rates that are much higher than the provincial average.

Curtis Woloschuk, senior policy adviser for the Saskatchewan Ministry of Justice, said La Loche had 83,021 reported crimes per 100,000 people in 2014. The provincial average was 10,505. La Loche RCMP dealt with 3,012 incidents in 2014, down from 3,662 a decade earlier.

Woloschuk said violent crime has dropped 50 per cent in La Loche in the last decade. Rates have been dropping nationally as well.

But there have been high-profile encounters.

In 2011, RCMP members had to barricade themselves in the hospital away from a mob of angry party-goers when a man on an all-terrain vehicle ran off the road while being chased by police.  

In 2009, a 13-year-old girl was hit in a drive-by shooting.

A suicide rate triple the provincial average has also received a lot of attention since Friday's shooting.

Kathy Willerth with the Saskatchewan Health Ministry said the suicide rate for the health authority that includes La Loche was 44.6 per 100,000 people from 2008 to 2012. The average provincial rate was 12.2.

But Willerth said the actual number of suicides in the region of about 11,000 people is much lower. There were two in 2010, three a year later and two again in 2012.

It's unclear when children will return to school in La Loche.

"What is key is creating a sense of normalcy for the students,"  Donna Johnson of the Education Ministry said Tuesday. "What's also important is ensuring the community have the appropriate time to grieve their losses, to have their memorials and receive counselling."

Resident Perry Herman said the community doesn't want the outside world to focus on the negative.

"It takes a lot of time for them to realize and then all of a sudden to step up and say, 'OK, I need to do something to move on," he said. "In those times, they need people like counsellors and whatnot. They need people who are going to get up and to be motivated to move on in life again."

For Montgard the problem is economic opportunity.

"La Loche is not a bad community. This is an isolated incident," he said. "This could happen to any community anywhere in Canada.

"But we have economic conditions and social conditions that are, bar none ... really, really hurtful to our community and ... they'll take time to change."

— With files from Chinta Puxley in Winnipeg.


Jennifer Graham, The Canadian Press