In the wake of Friday’s deadly shootings in La Loche, Sask., many Canadians are only now learning about what the isolated community is like.
“This is a place in Saskatchewan that not a lot of people know about,” said Global Edmonton anchor Kent Morrison, who visited the town in 2010 to help put together the documentary Denendeh. “We’d heard stories; we’d researched stories of violence and the suicide rate being very high and basically our goal was to go up there and find out why.”
Along with several classmates, Morrison, who was attending the University of Regina at the time, spent five days in the community of about 3,000 to put together the film.
La Loche is nestled near the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. According to the Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan, the area has long been frequented by aboriginals but the town developed with the arrival of fur traders and later missionaries. However, the decline of the fur trade over the years has seen unemployment in the area rise.
“Like a lot of places in Canada, there are many reasons why – centuries of reasons why things are the way they are in that community, ” said Morrison referring to the community’s notoriety for violence and high suicide rates.
La Loche has come into the national spotlight after four people were killed by gunfire at a school and a home on Friday.
FULL COVERAGE: La Loche school shooting
According to its annual 2014-15 report, the Keewatin Yatthe Regional Health Authority says more than 90 per cent of the area’s population identifies itself as aboriginal and that the population has a large young demographic; 27 per cent of residents are less than 15 years of age and only seven per cent over 65.
To the south of the town, a road will generally get travellers to Prince Albert, Sask. in about six hours while a second road leads to Fort McMurray, Alta., though only in the winter.
“There’s not a lot around there,” said Morrison. “It takes a long time to get from any major city or even a small town to get there.”
A 2007-08 report from the area’s health region concluded that the remote but sprawling corner of northwest Saskatchewan had a suicide rate that was more than triple the provincial average. Morrison said he was hoping to piece together why the rates were so high in the documentary but added that the answers are not black and white.
“We didn’t answer any questions when we were up there but we learned a lot,” he said. “We’d learned a lot about colonialism, we learned a lot about the roles you’d see as authorities: the police, teachers, nurses, a lot of them are people who came from not La Loche. They came from outside and they were then in this position of authority.”
Morrison said he wrestled with the fact he and his colleagues were also outsiders coming to La Loche and whether they were in fact able to let the area residents assert themselves and explain who their community was.
“We came in as outsiders (and) thought we knew what we were going to find. And we realized that we were just becoming the same thing that we wanted to talk about,” he said.
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said on Saturday that suicide prevention programs have been in effect in La Loche since before he took office and continue to exist.
“There’s a suicide prevention initiative specifically that government has moved on since we have been witness to some very terrible numbers with respect especially youth suicides,” Wall said. “It’s an ongoing effort on the part of government and the communities themselves.”
The area’s shift from a fur trade economy to a mining economy has been a polarizing one in the community. While some have pushed for more drilling for oil and minerals to spur job creation, others have argued industrial activities have degraded the environment there.
In late 2014, the Northern Trappers Alliance blockaded a gravel road near the town to prevent exploration companies from getting through.
Morrison said despite its problems, the community is incredibly tight-knit and there are positives to highlight.
“There’s a lot of efforts to empower the youth and let them know that there’s lots of things for them to do,” he said. “It’s a beautiful place if you’re ever up in that area.”
-with files from the Canadian Press
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