By Lethbridge Herald on February 13, 2016.
Northern communities need stronger social support systems. Without them, says a Lethbridge-trained educator, tragedies like the shootings in La Loche could happen time and again.
â€œThere certainly are challenges there,â€ says Trent Terakita, who taught in two northern Saskatchewan schools, including Laâ€ˆLoche, until 2010. â€œBut people are still making a difference up there.â€
Few Canadians knew anything about the isolated community, far north of Saskatoon, until they heard reports of a teenaged boy shooting and killing four people â€” students and a teacher.
But Terakita, whoâ€™s also taught in Lethbridge and northern Alberta, says residents face social issues that are addressed in larger communities to the south. Provincial governments are not providing the same levels of care in the north, he points out.
The results are painfully obvious.
â€œI think this could happen anywhere,â€ Terakita says â€” particularly in the north.
In La Loche, he reports, the schools and teachers try to fill many of those gaps.
â€œEverything seems to revolve around the school,â€ and teachers in the areaâ€™s two schools have succeeded in building sports teams and other positive programs in their schools. But when a teenager drops out. . .
Some students never complete high school â€” the same as in Lethbridge â€” and Terakita says not many from La Loche continue their education at college or university in Saskatoon.
â€œFor a lot of opportunities, people have to leave their community.â€
But for La Loche students who are members of the Dene First Nation, moving south means losing contact with their history and traditional culture â€” as well as their family members and friends.
â€œSometimes that can be daunting.â€
And for those who do pursue advanced education, Terakita observes, there are few career opportunities in the north unless they choose to become a nurse or a teacher.
In the wake of last monthâ€™s killings, some commentators have been suggesting government-sponsored programs to provide northern Canadians, who see few career prospects there, to start life anew in the south.
But Terakita points out todayâ€™s Dene students â€” many of whose parents and grandparents are survivors of Canada’s notorious residential school system â€” are eager to learn more about their ancestorsâ€™ lives and traditions. They want to preserve their families and communities.
As vice-principal at Clearwater River Dene Nation School, Terakita saw teachers â€” some of them from Ontario or Atlantic Canada, fresh out of university â€” earn secondary school studentsâ€™ trust, and then offer them opportunities to excel.
â€œThere was a big push to keep kids involved,â€ he says. â€œTheyâ€™re young, energetic people and they enjoy playing sports.â€
But Terakita â€” one of the first teachers at Alan Watson School on Mayor Magrath Drive, when it became an alternative school for teenagers â€” says northern communities face the same problems with street drugs, addictions, mental health issues and run-ins with the law as cities and towns everywhere.
Because thereâ€™s a sense of isolation, he explains, â€œthe issues are kind of amplified.â€
In Lethbridge, he learned, there are many groups and agencies making a difference.
In the north, â€œThere werenâ€™t a lot of local resources available to help.â€
And while young, idealistic teachers are anxious to do what they can, Terakita says administrative changes in the education systems â€” in Alberta and Saskatchewan, maybe more â€” are reducing the amount of time teachers can actually spend interacting with their students.
â€œNow it seems a lot more important to check boxesâ€ than to chat with students, he says. â€œThereâ€™s more paperwork to complete.â€
So Terakita has moved on, now working for one of Albertaâ€™s major energy companies â€” one thatâ€™s still preparing for a new project north of Fort McMurray. But heâ€™s kept in touch with teachers and community members in La Loche, all of them still facing the fallout from Januaryâ€™s tragedy.
â€œPeople in the north are a lot closer-knit,â€ he says. â€œThey rely a lot on each other.â€
And when someone is injured or ill â€” like one of the women injured by the shooter â€”theyâ€™re prepared to make the day-long drive to visit a friend or co-worker under treatment in Saskatoon.
â€œIt affects the entire community.â€