Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/1/2016 (2093 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
When spasms of violence strike and a little-known community becomes widely known overnight, tragedy and place sometimes become interlinked for generations. It's the way that, though life has continued on in Sandy Hook and Columbine, their names remain interchangeable for the worst things that ever happened to them. To the world outside, their names are shorthand for "a place where children violently died." To those outside, their names are a flash of horror, frozen in time.
Maybe that cruel distinction passes now to La Loche, Sask., where two teens and two young educators were killed, and seven more wounded in last week's shootings.
Before the news broke, one reasonably guesses the community was entirely unknown to the majority of Canadians, and not only by the name itself; it is unknown to the majority of Canadians by experience, by knowledge, by the kinds of comforting assumptions we weave into our stories about what it is to live here.
On Facebook, my friend Tyler Shipley, a Winnipegger and now adjunct professor at York University and Humber College, aptly summarized that disparity.
"La Loche, we can presume, is not the kind of town that gets featured in CBC's aggressive campaign to convince us Canada is a collection of heartwarming rural experiences," Shipley wrote. "Hometown Hockey did not go there, neither did Kraft Hockeyville or Hockey Day in Canada or any of the other Tim Hortons ads dressed up as patriotic celebrations of hockey."
In other words, La Loche is one of the many communities we hide on the shelf until its hurts spill out in ways we can't ignore. Usually indigenous. Always poor.
From above, maybe the picture looks different. On a map, La Loche looks as if it could be idyllic. On its western edge, the two-lobed footprint of Lac La Loche looks like something, though it's hard to pin down exactly what. Later, a Canadian Press story informs us it was named after the only type of freshwater cod.
It is a community of about 3,000 people, more than a quarter of them children. It is one of the heartbeats of the Denesuline language. The Clearwater River Dene First Nation sits to its north, and the territory around La Loche has held its people's stories since time immemorial.
Following the shootings, we learned much more about the community, things both beautiful and hard to bear. We learned the median income is far below the rest of Saskatchewan, scraping the poverty line. It struggles. A teacher in La Loche told a friend on Twitter she had lost many students to suicide.
We also learned the people of La Loche have each other, and in that find a grace that should leave us humbled. The grandmother of the two slain boys -- who is also related to the 17-year-old alleged shooter -- asked for forgiveness for the accused. She asked an archbishop to add that call alongside prayers for the victims.
In Saskatoon, Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Chief Bobby Cameron said, "there is a lot of talk of forgiveness" among the families of hospitalized victims. There were vigils and gatherings. The undeniable lesson: the people of La Loche have known hardship, and know each other, and find in those things compassion.
Still, there is a lasting and lingering image, one that -- as Shipley said -- will never make it into a photo collage or retrospective of what Canada is, or what it imagines itself to be. That image is one of a father pouring gasoline on a graveyard fire, so that the earth will hold his son.
We ought not to forget that one. We ought not to set it back on the shelf, to let the shock of it wear off, to let it gather dust.
So what will Canada do for La Loche, and for all the other communities that go by different names in different territories, but whose struggles are the same?
On Tuesday, in a city 3,500 kilometres away from La Loche, and an entire world away in terms of power, a human rights tribunal in Ottawa declared Canada had discriminated against children living on First Nations and in the Yukon by denying them the level of child-welfare resources that existed in other places.
The ruling, which is binding, requires Ottawa to immediately develop a plan to implement changes. The Trudeau government stated it welcomed the findings, with Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett pledging to ensure "First Nations, Inuit and Métis children... get the same start in life" as other kids.
At the centre of it all was Cindy Blackstock, a Gitxsan woman and executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.
She fought nine years for this. For the work of tirelessly advocating for indigenous children, she was rewarded with federal surveillance by the former Conservative government and physically barred from a 2009 government meeting to which she had been invited -- an act for which the tribunal ordered she be compensated.
"Children only get one childhood," Blackstock said at a news conference in Ottawa to mark the ruling.
That's true, and yet sometimes there are the ones who don't even get that much, or not fully. The ones waiting to be buried while a father thaws the earth. The ones healing in hospital. The ones who didn't live even to survive this hurt because they had already reached a point where the pain was too heavy to bear.
None of this is to suggest the findings in Ottawa have any direct relationship on what happened in La Loche, but it is to say the two events once again affirm something fully known, and yet somehow still not fully confronted: there is a Canada romantic and uplifted, and a Canada obstinately, deliberately forgotten.
That is, until something happens we cannot ignore, and cannot forget. And for years, along with its grace, the name of La Loche will testify to that.
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.