This time, La Loche must stay in our fo­cus

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Tim Harper is a na­tional affairs writer for Torstar Syn­di­ca­tion Ser­vices. tharper@thes­tar.ca Twit­ter: @nut­graf1

Now, we can place La Loche on a map.

It took a tragedy of un­speak­able pro­por­tion for the tiny north­ern Saskatchewan com­mu­nity to burst into Cana­dian sen­si­bil­i­ties, but it has lived tragedy time and time again.

That most Cana­di­ans knew noth­ing about that un­til a mul­ti­ple shoot­ing shook the coun­try Fri­day speaks to the iso­la­tion, the in­vis­i­bil­ity and the gap in ser­vices in so many re­mote First Na­tions com­mu­ni­ties in this coun­try.

Had Fri­day’s shoot­ings hap­pened in Sur­rey or Scar­bor­ough we might be talk­ing gun con­trol again. That the shoot­ings hap­pened in a Dene com­mu­nity in our north, a com­mu­nity with­out a ho­tel, a restau­rant, a bank, a recre­ation cen­tre or ser­vices we take for granted in the south should again fo­cus de­bate on how Cana­di­ans in the far north fall off our radar.

It should again force us to ask our­selves why ba­sic men­tal health ser­vices can­not be found in our iso­lated north­ern com­mu­ni­ties.

La Loche has lived through sui­cide epi­demics in the past, largely un­re­marked upon by the rest of Canada.

There had been at­tempts to shed light on life - and death - in La Loche, most no­tably by the Saska­toon Star-Phoenix and a 2010 Univer­sity of Regina jour­nal­ism school doc­u­men­tary.

The northwest por­tion of Saskatchewan, in­clud­ing La Loche, had, as of 2012, a sui­cide rate three times the Saskatchewan pro­vin­cial av­er­age, four times the ur­ban rate in that prov­ince.

One pub­lished re­port in 2009 claimed 45 La Loche teens at­tempted sui­cide over an 18month pe­riod. More than half were suc­cess­ful.

By now, the na­tional sta­tis­tics are well known.

First Na­tions youth com­mit sui­cide about five to six times more of­ten than non-abo­rig­i­nal youth. The sui­cide rate for First Na­tions males is 126 per 100,000 com­pared to 24 per 100,000 for non-abo­rig­i­nals. For fe­males, the First Na­tions sui­cide rate is 35 per 100,000 com­pared to five per 100,000 non-abo­rig­i­nal fe­males.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall ac­knowl­edged the “ter­ri­ble, stark” num­bers of youth sui­cides and pointed to a sui­cide preven­tion pro­gram in­sti­tuted by the prov­ince. But he also ac­knowl­edged it has seen more suc­cess in some com­mu­ni­ties than oth­ers.

Ef­forts are on­go­ing, the premier said, but Georgina Joli­bois, the newly elected NDP MP for Des­nethé-Missinippi-Churchill River and for­mer mayor of La Loche, re­mem­bers invit­ing Wall to a fu­neral of a sui­cide vic­tim and hav­ing the premier de­cline.

“He told me he didn’t want to make sui­cide a political is­sue,” she re­called Sun­day.

A sui­cide spate or the hor­rific shoot­ing deaths of four fo­cus world at­ten­tion on La Loche, she said, but no one both­ers to no­tice the ef­forts to make things bet­ter in be­tween the bad news.

As mayor, she said, she and the com­mu­nity sol­diered on with­out proper sup­port from the prov­ince. Fed­eral fund­ing cuts hurt cul­tural, youth and el­der pro­grams, she said.

Re­gard­less, she added, there has been a jump in high school grad­u­ates in re­cent years. There is a car­pen­try ap­pren­tice pro­gram in the com­mu­nity. The streets have been im­proved, a play­ground built, peo­ple in La Loche have worked hard to em­pha­size the ben­e­fits of healthy diet and life­style and cul­tural his­tory.

But she could not say whether the sui­cide rate had im­proved.

There has been a never-end­ing Cana­dian slide show of First Na­tions de­spair - glue-sniff­ing, al­co­hol and drug abuse, lack of potable wa­ter, un­em­ploy­ment, mur­dered and miss­ing abo­rig­i­nal women, homelessness, sui­cides - and the Cana­dian re­ac­tion is usu­ally to re­coil, then move on. But there is rea­son for hope. The in­com­ing govern­ment of Justin Trudeau has pledged to re­set the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Ottawa and First Na­tions. The pledge has been made be­fore, but this govern­ment’s agenda is re­mark­able in its scope.

It has be­gun con­sul­ta­tions on a na­tional in­quiry into miss­ing and mur­dered women and has promised to in­sti­tute the rec­om­men­da­tions of the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion.

In the mean­time, in La Loche, Joli­bois will re­mem­ber the teach­ings of her el­ders.

“We will come to­gether and talk about pos­i­tives we can take from this tragedy. With ev­ery in­ci­dent there is an op­por­tu­nity for learn­ing,” she said.

That learn­ing should not be re­stricted to La Loche.

Tim Harper Na­tional Affairs

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