LA LOCHE, SASK. — Marvin Herman, 60, looks out over the small field of wooden crosses and headstones, most of them partially buried in snow.
“I was in my teens when they built this graveyard. It was in the bush, far removed from the community and, you know, look at that,” says Herman before pointing to the new houses being built beyond the fence.
“It don’t take long,” he says.
This is the newest of three cemeteries in this remote northern community. It’s relatively small compared to large graveyards in urban areas to the south. But a walk among the plots, which are often surrounded by short wooden fences and piled with flowers and mementoes, provides a glimpse into the many tragedies that have occurred here.
“Now, we barely have room at the graveyard because of suicide, tragedies like this,” Don Herman told the CBC last week. He’s an uncle to Dayne and Drayden Fontaine, the teen brothers who were shot dead in their home on Jan. 22 shortly before someone opened fire in the La Loche Community School.
Ages on the graveyard plaques speak of the tragic toll on young people here: 28 years old; 24 years old; 18 years old.
Murray Chatlain, archbishop of Keewatin-Le Pas, raises his eyebrows and smiles when asked whether he knows of a map or other reference indicating where people are buried.
“The cemetery is the people’s cemetery,” says Chatlain. He came to La Loche following the shooting to preside over mass at Our Lady of the Visitation Roman Catholic Church and provide pastoral care while the regular parish priest was travelling overseas on vacation.
“A family will go out and pick a spot and the family digs the grave ... When we gather after the funeral, we fill in the grave together as a group and set the monument up, usually a simple cross,” he says.
“The cemetery is a very visited place in that people often go there to pray for their loved ones,” he says.
Ricky Janvier, 44, lives near the cemetery.
He goes there for a walk sometimes, when he thinks of his best friend, Ricky Moise, who died from cirrhosis of the liver when he was about 40 years old.
“When I miss him, I go to visit him,” says Janvier.
Earlier, Janvier had stood up from his plastic chair on the floor of the band hall on the Clearwater River Dene Nation reserve, not far from La Loche, and walked to the front of the room to address about 60 people gathered for a prayer meeting.
“I grew up in a good home, but alcohol was involved. My parents drank,” he told the room. “Coming from a good home or a bad home, there are always struggles in life,” he said.
“We turn to alcohol and drugs at times, thinking it will solve our problems, but it creates more problems,” said Janvier, who said he quit drinking 13 years ago, when he found out he was going to be a father.
“My kids kept me going. I just wanted to be the best father I can, the best parent, the best role model for them,” he says, sitting later in the audience. Another person is telling his story at the podium overlooking the statue of the Virgin Mary. Two candles burn on the nearby table.
Janvier and Moise were friends as kids; their childhood games eventually turned to joining each other at the bar to have a few.
“I turned my life around, but he was still struggling. He started to get sick of it and, eventually, that’s how he passed,” Janvier says of Moise.
“We were close. I miss him a lot,” he says.
He fears for other friends who are on that same path.
“I get very worried, because we are losing a lot of people because of things like this. But I try my best to give them the best words of wisdom I can give them. I always encourage them to try their very best. There is always something in life you have to look up to,” Janvier says.
At the cemetery, Marvin Herman is working with Aaron Janvier, 32, to help prepare a grave for Marie Janvier, 21, an educational assistant who was killed during the shooting at La Loche Community School.
Neither of them work for the cemetery — no one does, officially — but they have both been travelling back and forth in a pickup trick laden with logs to add to the fire needed to thaw the frozen earth for digging.
“There is always somebody coming around, feeding the fire,” he says.
“As a community, we get together,” he says.