Canada's School Shooting Highlights Systemic Poverty and Racism in First Nations Communities

Chiefs say incidents of internal violence are a function of the crushing poverty that Canada's Aboriginal peoples endure daily.
Manisha Krishnan
Toronto, Canada
January 26, 2016, 5:00am

Residents in La Loche console one another. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

On a morning in mid-October, a young man living in the Bridge River First Nations near Lillooet, British Columbia, entered his band council's office carrying a hammer and violently assaulted ten people inside. The perpetrator, David James, 22, died at the scene, reportedly of cardiac arrest. His attack sent ten people to the hospital, including two who were placed in critical care.

Amidst cries of horror and shock, there was another reaction: resignation. James was extremely poor; band staffers, the same ones he beat with a hammer, had been trying to help him find a way to pay rent and find housing. "He had complex social and health needs that our staff did not have the resources or training to adequately respond to," said Xwisten Band Chief Susan James, at the time, while Regional Chief Shane Gottfriedson remarked the same thing could happen in any band in the country.

In a way, it has.

The particulars of the shooting that took in La Loche, Saskatchewan Friday are much more sensational, of course. A 17-year-old boy, who had reportedly been bullied mercilessly about his appearance, shot dead brothers Dayne and Drayden Fontaine at a residence, before continuing his rampage at La Roche Community School, where he killed teacher Adam Wood and teacher's aide Marie Janvier. The teen, who is a minor and has not been named, has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder and seven counts of attempted murder.

It's being described as one of the worst school shootings in Canadian history, which is technically true, and explains why the story has dominated headlines across the country in recent days. But unlike similar situations that have occurred in the US, where the coverage quickly turns to conversations about gun control and extreme ideologies, the response here was markedly different. There seems to be an acknowledgment that there are larger systemic issues at play.

Those working on the ground say the underlying reason for the two outbursts, and an overarching problem with violence in indigenous communities, is poverty. They're not surprised by what happened in La Loche. And judging by the relatively muted reaction coming from the public, Canadians aren't either.

"All of these incidents of internal violence in First Nations communities are pretty much a function of the crushing poverty that our Aboriginal communities endure on a daily basis," Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, told VICE. "What has become abundantly clear in this case in La Loche is there are absolutely no services available, no fundamental basic services to the people there, save and except for the school itself."

Speaking to VICE News over the weekend, Kelly Patrick, former director of health for Métis Nation of Saskatchewan, said the high youth suicide rate in La Roche, coupled with a lack of mental health services and poverty, puts the shooting into "perspective."

"No one has been paying attention to this community," she said.

La Loche, a remote town of about 2,611 located 600 kilometers north of Saskatoon, is home to the First Clearwater River Dene Nation. Members of the community are comprised of residential school survivors, many of whom experienced physical, sexual, and verbal abuse at the hands of the government. Suicide rates in the general area are three times the province's average—43.4 deaths per 100,000 people compared to 12.7 deaths per 100,000 people, respectively—according to the Keewatin Yatthe Regional Health Authority .

Despite Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall pointing to a provincially-sanctioned suicide prevention program, the fact remains La Loche lacks even a recreational center to engage its young people.

"We just went through a dark, ten-year-long nightmare under the Harper regime where programs and services were harshly cut back and I think this is the consequence of it," Phillip said.

He said his own hometown, British Columbia's Penticton Indian Reserve, suffered a triple homicide in 2004, in which a young man, apparently in the grips of a drug- and booze-fueled psychosis, shot three people at a party before slitting his own throat. The killer, Dustin Paul, who was 24 years old at the time, was a drug dealer suffering from depression—his own father had been murdered in 1999.

"When you have circumstances like that that are a function of and a consequence of structural poverty, you're going to have these kinds of situations develop," Phillip said. Usually, these "situations" quickly vanish from the public's memory, if they ever register in the first place, he added, a result of systemic racism. "People shrug their shoulders and say, 'What would you expect, it's a First Nations community?'"

Had the La Loche shooting taken place in a white community, or one of Canada's urban centers, "governments would move heaven and earth to make investments to ensure it never happened again," he said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said his government will prioritize reconciliation with Canada's indigenous people. "Our hearts and prayers are also with those injured in the attack, that they may have a full and speedy recovery," he said after Friday's shooting.

But unless his government can start providing even the most basic of services to those desperately in need, he'll likely be repeating those words in the future.

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