LA LOCHE, SASK. — Residents in the small Saskatchewan town that was the scene of a horrific mass shooting just two days earlier came together in prayer on Sunday as they began what community members say will be a long process of healing.
More than a hundred people gathered in the auditorium attached to an arena in the centre of La Loche, Sask. for a prayer vigil to honour the victims of Friday’s attack, which left four people dead and seven others injured. As residents took turns at the microphone to offer messages of support for the grief-stricken town, some people in the audience related remarkable stories of how they escaped the violence.
A 14-year-old boy told the Toronto Star he was at the La Loche Community School on Friday afternoon when he heard shots ring out. Before he realized he was in danger, a gun was pointed at him.
“I looked down the barrel and I told myself to run,” said the boy, who is not being identified in order to protect his identity. He spoke to the Star with the permission of his grandfather.
He said he doesn’t know why he wasn’t fired on, but he escaped by running outside and across the a football field. Although he had experienced trauma of his own, the boy said that he wanted to come to the vigil out of respect for those killed in the shooting spree —tutor Marie Janvier, 21; teacher Adam Wood, 35; and brothers Dayne Fontaine, 17, and Drayden Fontaine, 13.
The student said he had known all of them, but was closest with Drayden. “He’s a good kid. He didn’t deserve that,” he said. “Nobody did.”
Another youth, who is not being identified in order to protect his identity, and whose parents gave him permission to talk to the Star, told a reporter over the phone after the vigil that he had been walking around the school just before 1 p.m., and was about to head to gym class when he heard a gunshot.
“I turned around and saw (someone) shoot out a window there. That’s when I just ran for it,” he said.
His only thoughts, he said, were “I need to get out of here,” as he ran to the gym to grab his friend, after which the two of them ran to the school’s baseball diamond.
The youth said he was still in shock that something like that could happen at his school — Dayne Fontaine was a friend of his, and Wood was his math teacher.
“At that moment I knew I was scared. I didn’t want to be there, and I ran. But after I just kept thinking how scary it must have been for (Wood),” he said.
On Sunday afternoon, Wood’s family released a statement saying they were “devastated,” but asking the public to focus their attention on the community of La Loche, and not Wood. The native of Uxbridge, Ont. had only moved to the town in September to teach at the school.
“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,” said the statement, which called Friday’s tragedy an “opportunity to examine ourselves and hopefully, come out better and stronger as a community and a nation.”
“The leaders and members of the (La Loche) 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.”
Yet some of those at the vigil used their voices to remember Wood, including Courtney Janvier, a 20-year-old who attends the school. Even though Wood wasn’t his teacher, Courtney said the pair had formed a bond, and would playfully punch each other whenever they passed in the halls.
“He was the one who believed in me, even though I didn’t attend much school,” said Courtney, who was related to the other three people killed. “He encouraged me to do everything I can.”
Near the start of the ceremony, Marie Janvier’s brother Quentin lined up with other community members to light candles for the victims, which were assembled into the shape of a cross on a white folding table at the front of the room. He spent much of the vigil sitting with his head in his hands; some in the room held each other and sobbed.
Quentin, 37, said the candle was for his “baby sister,” who he called “the sweetest girl you’ll ever know.” Being surrounded by other community members helped to ease his pain a little, he acknowledged, but he was still struggling to come to grips with his loss. “I’m shattered,” he said.
The vigil continued throughout Sunday afternoon, with two musicians playing Christian songs on keyboard and guitar, and those assembled reciting Catholic prayers in Dene, the First Nations language that is predominant in the town.
Many people shared their own stories of tragedy and violence, including one man who recounted discovering the body of his son, who had hanged himself.
Suicide is prevalent in the town of about 3,000. A report from the area’s health region in 2007-08 noted that the sprawling geographic region in the province’s northwest had a suicide rate that was three times the Saskatchewan average.
Next door at the arena, throughout the day people dropped off clothing, food hampers, and other household items as donations to an auction organized through the local radio station, CHPN, “the Dene Voice of the North.”
Ranelle Sylvestre, who was helping co-ordinate the auction, said proceeds would go to the families of the surviving victims to help them recoup the costs of travelling to Saskatoon, where their loved ones are being treated.
Sylvestre, an employment co-ordinator for the local Friendship Centre, said she and other volunteers were trying to put their own feelings aside for the moment. “La Loche is hurting. Everyone is. But some of us are strong enough to hurt afterwards and help now,” she said. “Somebody has to do it.”
A short distance across town, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, also a Saskatchewan MP, met with community leaders Sunday afternoon after their flight was initially delayed because of weather.
After the meeting, Wall said the community will get the support it needs from the province to help people who are struggling after Friday’s attack, as well as in the longer term on its infrastructure, education and health-care needs.
“The link is hope. Every community needs that,” he said. “Certainly young people need a sense of hope and I think a lot of mental-health issues flow from a lack of hope for people, not all of them but some, and so those are quality of life issues with respect to the education system and the health-care system.”
The archbishop of Keewatin-Le Pas made an appeal on Sunday for the community to find hope for its young people. Archbishop Murray Chatlain estimated about 250 people attended the service at the Church of Our Lady of the Visitation.
On Saturday night, Chatlain met with the family of the 17-year-old boy charged in the shootings to offer support in this “nightmare experience that they’re going through.”
The 17-year-old, who can’t be named under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, is charged with four counts of first-degree murder, seven counts of attempted murder and unauthorized possession of a firearm in connection with the shooting. He is scheduled to make his first appearance Monday in Meadow Lake provincial court.
Autopsies are scheduled on some of the victims as early as Monday, with funerals expected to take place later in the week.
– With files from Oliver Sachgau and The Canadian Press