January 25, 2016 8:04 pm
Updated: January 26, 2016 12:06 pm

Remote First Nation communities have been facing ‘tragedy’ long before La Loche: chief

WATCH: La Loche, Saskatchewan has struggled with a high suicide rate, poverty and addiction, but it hasn't necessarily gotten the resources it needs to tackle these problems. Eric Sorensen looks at the challenges faced there and in other First Nations communities.

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The tiny community of La Loche, Sask. is still reeling from the horrific murders of four people in a shooting spree last Friday.

But the mass shooting in the remote community has only brought people’s attention to its plight and underlying social problems because the headlines are reminiscent of repeated stories out of the United States, where mass shootings now occur on a regular basis, says an Ontario First Nation chief who knows all about the problems faced by isolated indigenous communities.

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“There’s a mundane tragedy that has been happening in our communities for quite some time,” Chief Isadore Day, Ontario Regional Chief for the Assembly of First Nations, said of the poverty and lack of opportunity in northern First Nation communities.

READ MORE: 17-year-old charged in La Loche school shooting appears in court

He said there’s so little promise of a prosperous future in some northern First Nation communities that no parent from a non-indigenous community would ever consider sending their child there for a better life.

“It’s because First Nations are cut off, because of the funding cuts, because of the lack of investment,” Day said.

He says it’s time for that to change.

“This country has going to have to come to grips with the fact that we are in the 21st century and he [have] First Nation communities throughout the North that aren’t going to leave,” he said. “Perhaps it’s time to look at creating the proper transportation networks that are going to allow people mobility, access and to lower the cost of living in the North.”

READ MORE: Tribunal rules federal government discriminated against First Nations children

La Loche is more than 600 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon. While it’s closer, geographically, to Fort McMurray, Alta., it’s only easily accessible via an ice road in winter. Even the courthouse where the 17-year-old shooting suspect appeared Monday is a four-hour drive south.

It’s size and isolation doesn’t leave a lot of opportunity for its population.

In the village of roughly 2,600 people, more than 2,400 identify as First Nation or Métis. According to the 2011 National Household Survey, 78 per cent (1,385 of 1,770) of the people over the age of 15 have no post-secondary certificate, diploma or degree. The official unemployment rate is 22.3.

READ MORE: La Loche described as beautiful but troubled community

The median income in La Loche in 2011 was $14,497, compared to $77,300 for Saskatchewan and $72,240 nationally.

The homes there are overcrowded. As of 2011, there were only 630 private households. The number of people living in homes with more than one person per room is five times the average in Saskatchewan.

It’s statistics like these that contribute to problems like poor health, but it’s “one systemic issue that creates another,” Day said.

“One of the clear characteristics of the situation that First Nations are faced with is the issue of poverty,” he said noting that a lack of prosperity is fueling issues like a rise in rates of diabetes and youth pregnancy.

READ MORE: Leaders meet in La Loche, Sask. after shooting shook community, Canada

The suicide rate in northern indigenous communities is well above the national average.

While there were 15 suicides per 100,000 people nationally between 2008 and 2012, the rate in the Keewatin Yatthe Regional Health Authority — which includes La Loche — was more than triple that rate at 43.4 per 100,000.

Despite the figures, the community had been making progress, according to Leonard Montgrand, executive director of the La Loche Friendship Centre.

“This just sets us back. This really sets us back,” Montgrand told Global News. “Our suicide numbers were down. Our community issues were being addressed and our concerns were being met. But this has stepped us back considerably.”

Montgrand says the community needs help in the longer term, not just in the aftermath of last week’s tragedy. The frontline community workers who live there are already stretched thin. He fears this tragedy will have lasting impacts.

“We’ll see future impacts in this, in teacher retention [and] staff retention. We’re going to see heavier burdens on case workers,” he says. “This will not stop here.”

But, he’s hopeful the community will “persevere” as it has in the past. “We’ll move forward as we always have.”

With files from Reid Fiest in La Loche and Eric Sorensen in Toronto

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