I had imagined the community of La Loche in northern Saskatchewan to be rougher, less friendly, less beautiful, and more typical. I didn’t expect to fall a little in love with the place.
Radio-Canada sent me the nine hour drive north to cover the reopening of the community’s schools last week, one month after a shooter opened fire in the high school and in a residence, killing four people and wounding seven.
I had spent a week reading about the tragedy and its aftermath right after it happened, and almost without helping it, I associated La Loche with the shooting, with another report a year ago of a teacher attacked by a student, with community profiles that described high rates of violence, unemployment, poverty and suicide. One headline in the Globe and Mail, however, stood out: “La Loche : a beautiful town with a rough reputation.”
What I found was, indeed, a beautiful town bordered by a lake and a forest, and a town that is especially beautiful for its uniqueness, almost like a different country, far removed from southern Canada. Walking through the primary school parking lot on my first day there, I passed three young female staff, chatting and laughing in Dene, my first exposure to the predominant language in La Loche. According to the 2011 census, it’s the mother tongue of 89% of residents. You hear it much more often than English. Fascinated by language, I found this wonderful.
There’s no bank, no hotel, no hardware store, no real restaurant, no cafe – and no name brands, no aggressive commercial signs or advertisements. You come down the hill into the town, and you go down one long main street, where all the official buildings are – the bar, the RCMP building, the town office, an office where grief councillors have been working since the shooting, a primary school, a church, a grocery store. It doesn’t feel like a rich place. Numerous stray dogs wander about, seemingly well fed, perhaps looked after by kind strangers.
A cameraman, Cory, and I stayed in Buffalo Narrows, a one-hour drive south, and drove up to La Loche early Monday morning to gather material for our first radio and television reports. That Monday all the teachers were back in the primary school for the first time since the shooting. On Tuesday, the primary school kids would enter the school for the first time for an open house, and on Wednesday, the whole town would do a walk of solidarity before going back into the high school for a ceremony.
The primary school was filled with cars that Monday morning. A sign on the door read “No media” but the town was empty, I needed material for my stories, and felt at a loss. I walked inside, slipped off my boots, as everyone else seemed to be doing, and meekly asked if I could speak to someone in charge. A teacher showed me where the office was and said the vice principal would be by shortly. I was overcome by some emotions I would get used to in the coming days – shyness, meekness, fear. I tried at the same time to smile.
The vice principal was kind but firm. No one from the school could speak until the official events on Tuesday and Wednesday. I think I asked, what would you suggest to a journalist who really wants to be respectful? “Go somewhere else,” or something like that, she politely replied.
A lot of my apprehension about reporting in La Loche came from the fact that several days after the shooting, the mayor had asked all media to leave town. The population felt misrepresented by the coverage, they were overwhelmed by the dozens of journalists that had flooded into the town of 2600 from across the country and even the United States.
I found a town deeply mistrustful of people with microphones and cameras. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so consistently turned down for interviews. I asked people outside the schools, outside the grocery store, outside the gas station, outside the community hall, at a vigil, at the walk of solidarity.
Generally, I pride myself on being much less scared of talking to strangers than I used to be, after five years of regular journalistic efforts. Before, I could barely ask for any type of interview. Now it’s routine, and I’ve extended the practice to talking to strangers on planes and buses. The other night, my friend and I had just seen the film Carol, and there were two older ladies sitting behind us who had made the odd comment throughout the film and started a discussion pretty much as soon as the credits started rolling. Their voices sounded warm and friendly. Walking out, I spontaneously asked, “Did you ladies enjoy the film?” They had, and they asked if I had too. When I rushed back into the theatre looking for a lost mitten, they helped me look.
With the stakes a bit higher, I learned that my newfound confidence still has a long way to go. Plant me, a white man, in an Aboriginal community reeling from a tragic shooting, force me to ask as many of them as possible for an interview when most of them want nothing to do with me, and things are different. I did not want to talk to anyone. I would rather have sipped on a cup of tea and watched the traffic go by. I could perhaps have been comfortable saying hello, how was your day. I certainly did not feel like asking them about their grief.
In response to this, I felt like I was spilling out meekness, deference and embarrassment- please, don’t feel obligated to answer, if you have a moment, would you mind. The politeness helped, but the fear didn’t. This experience taught me that the key in these situations is to be certain of your intention. The more confident I was that I was there for a good reason, to tell the story of the community in a respectful, kind way, the more I relaxed and smiled, the easier it was to talk to people.
I resisted my shyness over and over again, pressed right up against the limit of my fear.
One of the first people I approached was Peter Janvier and his grandson Keiden, who had shown up at the primary school by accident on Monday, a day before school started. Peter kindly invited Cory and me to his home to talk about Keiden returning to school. Like so many people in La Loche that I would speak to, Peter and his wife Clara had relatives who were in the high school the day of the shooting. But they felt the primary school was safe and didn’t want Keiden to lose any of his schooling, wanting him to get the education that Peter wasn’t able to have. I’m grateful they shared their story with me.
None of the people who turned me down for an interview were rude. Many people smiled shyly. Many just kind of shrugged. I sensed that behind their distrust of media, there was an authenticity, and in some cases, a heart-breaking grief. “This is really not a good day for me,” one woman said to me at a vigil in front of an ice sculpture that depicted the victims’ faces.
On Wednesday, before the walk to reclaim the school began, I went into the crowd with our cameraman to ask people if they cared to share why the event mattered to them. A lady who I believe works at one of the schools came up to me and said, “We had specifically asked media not to interview participants in the march. Please respect our wishes” I hadn’t heard this, and I stood there like a deer in the headlights before acquiescing and walking off. I consulted with another journalist who said the director of communications for the provincial government, who had sent out a release about the event, hadn’t mentioned interviews being banned. This is also what I recalled so I went back up to the lady, told her that I wanted to be respectful, that I wanted to tell the story of the community, that the director of communications of the province had said interviews were allowed. She said, well, go talk to the director of communications. I insisted that I would never force anyone to do an interview, that I would simply ask if they were interested in speaking to me and respect their wishes. She looked away from me and silently nodded. I said, so it’s okay? I’ll leave it up to them? She nodded again.
One of the most tense and emotional press conference I’ve seen had happened earlier that morning. The school division had gathered a whole host of employees, from the primary school, the high school, and the division, as well as the mayor of the town, the RCMP and the provincial government. They sat at a long table, the school staff in purple sweatshirts made specifically to boost morale for the school reopening. The director of the school division stood in front and acted as a moderator. He mentioned that even in that very room, the tension between the community members and the media was palpable. He reminded media to be respectful.
The larger part of the questions went to the three staff members of the high school – vice principal Donna Janvier, assistant principal Greg Hatch and administrative assistant Martha Morin. Ms. Janvier and Mr. Hatch talked about being in the school during the shooting. They had already had a chance to go back in since and said it provoked anxiety and fear, but that it got easier, the more time they spent in the building.
This is where I feel I put my foot in my mouth, in a way that still makes me cringe to think about. Ms. Morin mentioned that the front entrance of the school would remain barricaded going forward. “We needed to eliminate triggers before we get up and running again, and the front entrance was one of those,” she said.
Wanting to understand more precisely, I said : “You don’t have to answer this, and the question might be a trigger in itself, but why was the main entrance a trigger?”
I’m pretty sure I heard someone behind me gasp. The three staff of the high school looked at me, silently. Luckily the director of education jumped in. “The reconstruction of the main entrance is also to put together a safer main entrance,” he said, and talked a bit about that, before adding that the press conference would be wrapping up soon.
The guilt voice in my head immediately kicked into high gear – you’re looking at people whose colleagues were shot and you’re asking them a question that could lead them to relive it, how could you.
I think I just wanted to better understand what happened, but in hindsight, it was an unwise question.
I was sitting there with this going through my head. But I had another difficult question and I felt confident that I needed to ask it. A few minutes later, I phrased it like this : “I apologize if my last question was disrespectful. I really didn’t mean it that way. This question is for the staff of the high school, and again, feel free not to answer. I’m just wondering if you felt safe in the school before January 22. I imagine you did, but I’d like to ask.”
Greg Hatch answered immediately. “Absolutely. I always felt safe in that school. And after the incident, I still feel safe in that school.”
I was glad I apologized, and relatively confident that my intentions, at least, were not bad, I let go of my guilt somewhat as the day went on, in the bustle of deadlines and more activity. Later, I would interview Greg Hatch, and was relieved that he didn’t seem to have any ill will toward me. I also ran into the director of the school division, who patted me on the shoulder after, perhaps noticing my need for reassurance.
The press conference seemed to get more emotional as it went on. Two parents in attendance asked why it took a shooting for the school to get an RCMP officer assigned to it (the RCMP officer present said that he couldn’t speak for previous decisions and the director of education said that schools across Canada are dealing with an “end of innocence” with regards to safety).
There was one comment near the end that stood out for me, from the primary school vice-principal Leanne Gailey, her voice breaking.
“At the end, when everyone goes back to normalcy and we don’t really have the supports that we have right now, it’ll all come from the people of the La Loche. And it’s going to be La Loche that’s going to move forward as a whole. … We are the ones that are going to have to deal with the aftermath in 20 years’ time and we have a good group of people who’s going to make sure that happens.”
A few hours after the press conference, hundreds of community members gathered to walk one kilometre together to “reclaim the school.” A row of women prayed loudly in Dene, the whole way. La Loche is predominantly Christian. All the walkers stopped for a few moments to pray outside the primary school, where dozens of school children joined their ranks, adding a lightness to the solemn procession.
When the hundreds of walkers entered the high school, reporters also went in, without recording equipment. We all stood in the main hall, a space perhaps the size of two or three tennis courts. The group of women were praying loudly. The numerous kids who were present looked around them unsure of what to say. The adults stood still. “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers came on over the loudspeakers. People sang softly, shyly, except for one woman who belted out the lyrics, a little off key. The song seemed to make evident a heartbreak that I hadn’t fully taken in, amid this crowd standing in this space where friends’ lives had been cut short. I sang along softly as tears streamed down my face.
After, a woman’s voice on the PA system introduced the next song: “We each have a light inside of us, and we have to let it shine in order to move on.” She led the school in an a capella version of “This little light of mine,” with reworked lyrics : “Let it shine all over La Loche, Lord. I’m going to let it shine.”
I loved my experience in La Loche. It felt like my journalism mattered, and I felt free. I was in the field. This was a real event, and it felt like a few days of “real life.”
We worked more than I’ve worked in a long time. We left the hotel at 7 am to drive to the town and were back at 8 or 9 pm. Radio and TV deadlines were constantly approaching. I did live national television hits for the first time. We didn’t really take breaks, and missed lunch one day. I felt the stress level, the desire for a break, rise and rise, until I didn’t really pay attention anymore. I entered a kind of mental zone where my whole being accepted that I would simply be doing nothing but work during my waking hours for this short period of time. Strangely, it felt good. Something shifted and I realized that I wasn’t just exhausted but also having a memorable experience. I knew that a break was coming and I knew that this work mattered. I did more than I had to, more than I was paid for, and it felt bigger than me, bigger than whatever reward or congratulations I would receive.
I’ve rarely been more aware of my crushing shyness and of my unwillingness to make decisions, my tendency to look to other journalists, hoping that they’ll decide and that I can follow. And yet, as I pressed on, a constant sense of loneliness that is one of my biggest challenges faded slightly, even as my imperfections became more and more clear.