In La Loche, hurt, grief and disbelief

Jason Markusoff reports from town of 2,600 where RCMP have announced charges against a 17-year-old

At the edge of a growing shrine in front of La Loche Community School, Cody Montgrand placed an unlit votive Saturday, as well as a small plastic figurine of the Virgin Mary. It had been sitting at home on Montgrand’s nightstand, and used to belong to his late grandfather, the 30-year-old explained after he said a silent prayer and crossed himself, tears welling his eyes.

Minutes later, a family of four came by and stuck into the snow some long-stem roses, red and yellow. They did not wish to speak with media. One of the sons had been at the high school Friday, when gunfire pierced walls, flesh, and the imaginations of this remote town in northwest Saskatchewan.

Four people were shot dead, including teenage brothers at home, and a teacher and tutor at the high school. Seven more were wounded there.

Austin Park, 18, was supposed to be in school Friday, but had arrived home from Alberta at 4 a.m. that morning, and slept instead of going to classes. At 1 p.m., he should have been where he could hear the dreadful sounds of the most violent day La Loche has ever known—one of the worst that any Canadian school has ever known.

“It just hurts knowing that that they’re gone. Four good people,” Park said after laying down flowers.

Candles and flowers placed as a memorial lay near the La Loche, Sask., junior and senior high school on Saturday, January 23, 2016. A shooting Friday left four people dead. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Memorial in La Loche, Sask. (Jason Franson, The Canadian Press)

On Saturday, the RCMP announced charges against a 17-year-old, whose identity cannot be released under the Youth Criminal Justice Act. The teen faces four counts of first-degree murder, along with seven counts of attempted murder and a weapons charge. He faced those charges in court on Monday.

The identities of the slain also came out Saturday. Drayden and Dayne Fontaine were brothers aged 13 and 17, whose grandfather Norman Fontaine told the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix were his “two babies” and “best friends.” Marie Janvier, 21, was a tutor at the school whose smile lit up every recorded description of her.

The 35-year-old Adam Wood had started his teaching career here only last September. He loved adventure and “would often make you laugh until your stomach hurt,” according to a statement from his family in Uxbridge, Ont.

Adam Wood is shown in an undated, family handout photo. Wood, who started teaching in September at the junior and senior high school in La Loche, Sask., was killed on Friday, Jan. 22, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ho

Adam Wood began teaching  in La Loche in the fall of 2015. (The Canadian Press, handout)

La Loche is about six hours drive north of Saskatoon and near the Alberta border. Many residents speak Dene, an Aboriginal language. The town of 2,600 had known much suffering and tragedy: disturbing levels of suicide, substance abuse, and even violence. A student was arrested in the stabbing of another four years ago, and a teacher once told CBC a teen tried to stab her with scissors in 2006. But how could anything match the scale, severity or shocking nature of Friday’s atrocity?

This is a partial screenshot of a chilling conversation on social media Friday, Jan. 23, 2016 purportedly between a young man and his friends in La Loche, Sask., shortly before a shooting at a school in the community. “Just killed 2 ppl,” wrote the young man. “Bout to shoot ip the school.” THE CANADIAN PRESS/ho

Part of a chilling exchange. (The Canadian Press)

The attack began Friday on Dene Crescent, where the Fontaine brothers were slain. (Police said family members gave them consent to name the teens.) Then, a social media message to some buddies, a screenshot of which was widely circulated around town: “Just killed 2 ppl. Bout to shoot ip the school.”

The school sits about four minutes away from the house, both scenes now ringed in yellow tape and supervised by RCMP cruisers. According to the parent of one student, the gunfire began at the front entrance. A large hole was visible Saturday on one of the 350-student facility’s front doors. Inside, as staff and students yelled that somebody had a shotgun, that weapon’s wielder continued. The school shooting lasted eight or nine minutes, police say. Officers detained the armed suspect at gunpoint.

Premier Brad Wall visited the town Sunday, along with federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, a Saskatchewan MP. A day after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Davos, Switzerland, called this a “parent’s worst nightmare,” the premier put his own fine point on the horror.

“Every day in Saskatchewan we send our kids to school because it’s a safe place for them to learn and grow,” Wall said in a statement. “And every day, teachers and teacher aides, because they have a passion for those young people, also go to those schools to provide that fostering and that education.

“To have the lives and futures of these students and staff cut short by this unspeakably horrible event is really, simply unimaginable. It’s unimaginable anywhere, obviously for us in Saskatchewan. It’s very much hard to believe and surreal, right here in our province.”

Police investigate the scene on Saturday, January 23, 2016 of a Friday shooting at a school in La Loche Sask. The shooting left four people dead. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

The school is ringed in yellow tape and supervised by RCMP. (Jason Franson, The Canadian Press)

La Loche’s main street is dotted with inspirational signs: “One way 2 play drug free.” “We love our children.” One urges “a good example to everyone, especially the youth,” near the town entrance.

“We’re nice people. Dene people,” said one man, who did not want to leave his name.

“We’ve got to help one another get through this,” said Montgrand, who had left the religious statuette as his tribute.

“There’s a lot of good people in La Loche. Everybody knows each other. Everybody helps each other.”

In the wake of this tragedy, scores of visitors have come in to help: social workers, government officials, RCMP officers from throughout the province, as well as Alberta and Manitoba. With no hotels in La Loche, and rooms all booked in the next community over, locals are opening their homes to let police officers stay in this town.

—With files from the Canadian Press