When the call for help was made, they responded.

Eight clinicians from Saskatoon Health Region’s Mental Health and Addictions Services each spent four days in the community of La Loche between February 16 and 22, helping the community deal with the aftermath of the shootings which had occurred there a month before.

On January 22, 2016, four people were killed and seven others injured after a shooting in La Loche. Two people were killed at their home, and two were killed at the Dene Building of the La Loche Community School, where others were also injured. A 17-year-old male suspect was apprehended by police.

The events of that day left the community devastated and in need of help to recover. Many different agencies responded and sent people to La Loche to provide services to the people there. In mid-February, the health regions across the province were asked if they could help with efforts there.

“We were asked to provide some extra support and relief for staff who had been there since the incident,” explained Tracy Muggli, Director of Mental Health and Addictions Services for Saskatoon Health Region.

A number of health regions stepped up to help, and Saskatoon was one of them.

“A lot of our staff put their names forward to go,” Muggli said. “Some, logistically, ended up not being able to make the trip, but we had enough who were willing and able to send two teams, each for four days at a time.”

Those teams included Kim Roblin, Chad Hryniuk, Ruth White, Lynn Isaak, Tammy Ens, Hillary Wand, Victoria Walton and Kim Tucker.

They went with the expectation of doing whatever was asked of them, whatever the community needed.

“These people are problem solvers,” said Muggli. “They’re capable of being thrown into a situation and just figuring it out.”

Saskatoon Health Region Mental Health and Addictions team members (from left): Lynn Isaak, Kim Roblin, Tammy Ens, Hillary Wand, Ruth White and Chad Hryniuk. Missing from photo: Victoria Walton and Kim Tucker.

Saskatoon Health Region Mental Health and Addictions team members (from left): Lynn Isaak, Kim Roblin, Tammy Ens, Hillary Wand, Ruth White and Chad Hryniuk. Missing from photo: Victoria Walton and Kim Tucker.

“We received a very warm welcome to La Loche from staff of various agencies as well as the community,” said Victoria Walton, a senior social worker with Adult Community Mental Health Services.

The Saskatoon crew spent much of their time doing crisis counselling. Their base was set up in the high school, where some of the shootings took place. The community, young and old, were invited to visit the school, where the counsellors would accompany them through the halls, helping them to deal with the emotions they were experiencing.

“We really watched the students as we walked them through the school,” said Tammy Ens, a social worker with Saskatoon Health Region’s response to violence team. “We did a lot of anxiety and exposure therapy, working with them on how to calm themselves if they started to panic.”

There was also a trailer next door to the school where they could meet with those not yet ready to come through the school.

The entire experience was eye-opening for many of the team members, none of whom had ever helped a community deal with a tragedy like this before.

“What’s stayed with me the longest is that I didn’t understand how many people it takes to rebuild after something like this,” said addictions counsellor Hillary Wand. “People were coming together all over the community; there were meetings day and night. I stayed in the schools, working with the youth and parents. I was definitely interested in hearing the youth’s stories, and working with their parents, who were trying to figure out how to help their kids.”

“It was humbling and inspiring to hear stories where grief and loss were layered over the generations, and yet where strength, resilience and humour were so apparent,” said Walton.

The Saskatoon crew was made up of people with diverse backgrounds, including some with trauma training. But they were all able to work with whoever they came across who needed help.

“My experience has only been with counselling adults, but a lot of the younger children and youth in La Loche gravitated towards me – I’m not sure why,” said social worker Kim Roblin. “But the most profound thing I’m taking away from this was how important it was to just be present with those kids.  They were talking about going back to the school, and really trying to find their identities again. For them, it was such a healing experience, being in the school again. Their identities will alter, but there is such strength in that community, and that will help them.

“We went there with the intention of being present, of being authentic with the people there. Everything fell into place after that,” she added.

The second team was in La Loche for their winter festival, right before the schools re-opened.

“Seeing how they all came together was nice to see during this time of crisis,” said social worker Chad Hryniuk.

Hryniuk spent a good portion of his time answering phone calls at the La Loche crisis centre, which was the only place to access services at night.

“We worked on very basic things with people,” he said. “We were there to help them with the basics: breathing techniques, knowing that they are supported, that there are people who care, and grounding techniques. I got the most out of being with the community, seeing them come together. There are still people struggling there.”

During the days in that week before school opened, there were many who needed help coming back to the school and dealing with the resulting emotions.

“For the people who came in, we were a friendly face to help them go through the school,” said Ruth White, an addictions counsellor. “But really, no matter where we went, we encountered people who needed to sit down and tell their story.”

“Everybody in the community was affected,” said Wand.

“It was really well organized when we came in,” said Lynn Isaak, another addictions counsellor who was part of the team. “We had some excellent materials to hand to people. And when we met with them, I was just in awe, hearing the stories of heroism and bravery, and the resilience they have shown. I was awestruck.”

White used her talents making balloon animals as a form of therapy to connect with both children and adults, and to bring smiles to faces that hadn’t smiled in a while.

“Some of the Victim’s Services staff was struggling; they’d been up there a long time,” White said. “So one day, I taught them how to make balloon animals. That lightened their moods, relaxed them a bit. I taught some of the students who came in as well. One group left with their arms full of animals, and they were laughing and talking. Something as simple as a balloon animal can help with healing.”

The experience has changed them all as practitioners, they said. There were a lot of tears when they were there, but they were grateful to have had the opportunity to work with these families.

“They really showed the power of family through this crisis,” said Ens, “the resiliency of family. All the chaos and the trauma brought people closer.”

“There’s a definite value in community,” Hryniuk said of what he learned. “When people come together, they heal quite profoundly.”

Roblin learned to let go of the goal they usually have in sight when they work with people. “There was no end goal to this, and so we had to be comfortable sitting with that as clinicians,” she said.

“The people there were so welcoming, and so thankful for the help,” White noted.

The entire experience, they all feel, was worth it. And they would go again.

“It was very humbling, to be invited to be with these families,” said White.

“It was amazing the way that various agencies – health regions, Victims Services – were able to join forces and become a team to help serve the community,” said Isaak.

“It was quite an honour to have been there with them, and the places they took us,” said Roblin.

“For me, it was an exceptional experience which reinforced my belief in the strength of the human spirit to go on despite great tragedy,” said Walton.

“The community of La Loche is incredible – the support out there is absolutely amazing,” Ens said. “It’s a beautiful area, and a very proud community.”

The team received from special thanks from Victim’s Services in La Loche: “There was something about your team that brought some special feeling to our work environment. I would just like to thank you all for coming. Sometimes when we leave, we feel like we haven’t done enough. I want you to know you all did more for the community than you will ever know! Please tell everyone thanks, and I hope to see you all sometime again!”