By Melissa Herman
I was at work on January 22nd 2016, when an online news headline caught my eye. “Breaking News: School Shooting in La Loche, Saskatchewan.” I struggled to read the words that seemed scrambled on my computer screen, and I heard my co-worker gasp and say, “oh my God, there was a school shooting in La Loche”.
La Loche is a small, isolated Dene community in Northern Saskatchewan. The annual winter road from Fort McMurray to La Loche is about 200 kilometers. Everyone in my department knew that I had distance relatives there.
The tears that were welling in my eyes fell as my coworker softly said, “I’m sorry.” That day my aunty and a close friend of mine decided we would make the trip to La Loche. “What do we bring?” I asked myself. “Flowers? Cards? Water?” I didn’t know what the community needed. At that moment, everything that I could think to bring seemed so useless. I found moose meat to offer. We raised money to buy nice flowers and a wreath with the victims’ names - Dayne, Drayden, Marie, and Adam - to lay at the school. It wasn’t good enough for me. There will always be moose meat, hopefully. Flowers eventually die. Fake flowers fade. A picture of Drayden on Facebook caught my eye. He looked so happy and I didn’t want that to fade. As a mother, that’s what I would miss the most. I wanted to bring that to his family. I thought it was impossible.
Russell Thomas is a well-known artist, actor, and writer here in Fort McMurray. He is also the Director of Communications at the local United Way. Worrying about how much it would cost and how little time I was giving him, I asked in a private Facebook message: will you paint these pictures for me, please. Attached were images of Dayne, Dreyden, Marie and Adam. Russell assured me he would do what he can to get the paintings done in time, at no cost. They were done in time and were the last thing I picked up on the way to La Loche. “I hope they like them,” I thought.
It was dark when we arrived. Our first stop was the brothers' home - Dayne and Drayden - on Dene crescent to drop off what we had brought for them. Their mother, Alicia Fontaine, wasn’t home so we left some moose meat and the paintings with the man that was there. “That painting is from an artist in Fort McMurray,” my aunty explained in Dene. “Merci” (thank you) the man replied. We left to make our way to my Great Aunty Marie’s for the night. We passed by Marie Janvier’s wake on the way there. We didn’t go inside so that there were more seats for her loved ones. The silhouette of a cross could be seen through the living room curtains. Sounds of Dene hymns were carried by the cold, crisp air.
We laid the flowers outside the school and retreated back to my Great Aunty’s house on Semchuk Trail. That night, I knew that I did what I was supposed to do, nothing more. The next morning the Prime Minister arrived. My Great Aunt and I were looking out her front window at Saleski Lake. The street was quiet, except for the Black SUV’s rushing down the road. There wasn't another vehicle in sight. Just the lake. The calmness didn’t last long. We watched as reporters, camera-men, police, and community members gathered to listen to the Prime Minister speak. The window acted as our television. Eventually, the streets went quiet again. The show was over. “I bet you that street never saw traffic like that before!” my Great Aunt joked.
While all this was going on, in an effort to weave the social innovation ecosystem in Alberta, ABSI Connect and their platform of support, SiG, were seeking someone to fill the roll of Northern Fellow. Kelsey Spitz, Senior Associate of Social Innovation Generation, happened to ‘cold email’ my newfound friend Russell Thomas, who then directed her to me.
“Thank you for referring me to Kelsey for the Northern Fellow position being offered by ABSI Connect,” I wrote Russell a couple of months later. “I hope you and your family are doing well since returning home from the (May 3rd Wildfire) evacuation”. “We are doing as well as could be expected,” he replied before saying “but thank you. Our connection to the tragedy in La Loche had a profound impact on me. In the madness of the evacuation, I got a message from someone in La Loche, Alicia Fontaine. She was making sure that I was okay”.
“Portraits of La Loche shooting victims a ‘gift to the community’ says painter” reads one CBC news headline. “Portraits pay tribute to victims of La Loche shooting,” says News Talk 650; the list of related articles goes on. A small gesture of comfort ended up having an unimaginable ripple effect, creating powerful connections.
I have been a Northern Fellow for a little over a month now and since beginning this role, I have learned how to spot social innovators from a mile away. Funny because two months ago I couldn’t define social innovation for the life of me. The May 3rd Wildfire has drastically shifted some realities in Fort McMurray, making it easier to plant seeds of innovation, while being able to recognize what’s working and just as importantly, what is not working. The more I explore and learn from this experience, the more I hope to capture and share the strengths of the place that I call home.