The phrase ‘Dene Strong’ was repeated over and over again at a grand reopening and memorial ceremony Jan. 18 at La Loche’s Dene High School.
While cameras and audio recording equipment weren’t permitted inside the event, hundreds of students, staff and local residents gathered in the gymnasium to celebrate $4.5 million in renovations, as well as remember the school shooting nearly three years ago where a gunman took the lives of four people and injured seven others. Many of the attendees at the ceremony wore purple and nearly a dozen dignitaries were present to speak.
“It was good because you could feel the energy and the renewal,” La Loche Mayor Robert St. Pierre told larongeNOWafter the event. “When you come into the new entrance and see the words ‘Dene Strong,’ you know the renovations have taken place and the students are excited to be here.”
St. Pierre, however, was disappointed in how long it took for renovations to be completed. He said when he was teaching in the school about two years ago, there was a feeling like the energy had been depleted and changes needed to be made. Now, he stated the reminders and triggers which lingered in the building for the past three years are gone and students should feel safe to come to school.
In total, the provincial government spent $4.45 million renovating the school and construction began in early 2018. Renovations included changes to the front entrance, staff and administration rooms, junior science room, student lounge and adjacent bathrooms. The front office was also fitted with bullet-proof windows and an addition to the school created three new offices.
“It’s new beginnings,” he said. “You can feel safe; you can come to school without those anxieties sneaking in.”
Northern Lights School Division Director of Education Jason Young noted most of the renovations occurred to incident areas where there was a loss of life. He also believes the changes should have happened sooner, but added the division didn’t have enough funds and had to lobby the provincial government to make it happen. Young said the renovations should have been done immediately after the tragedy.
“We’re moving forward and we need to take the necessary steps,” he said. “The major changes would be ... in the front office. The primary focus was on the front entrance and then also the wellness centre and offices.”
According to Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River NDP MP Georgina Jolibois, who is a graduate of Dene High School, the community initially asked for $11 million but were ultimately given $4.45 million. She also stated there remains gaps in mental health in La Loche and sometimes people are turned away because there’s no help available. Jolibois noted residents are also afraid of being forgotten as time goes by and they’re concerned the help needed in La Loche will fade away.
In regards to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau coming to La Loche next week to meet with students and staff, Jolibois hopes he arrives with funding for the community.
“I understand the school itself and the community had a different proposal submitted to him,” she said. “I hope it’s to support the bigger plan of the community, the reserve and the school.”
Meanwhile, provincial minister of finance Donna Harpauer pledged her government would continue to meet and work with the residents of La Loche. She couldn’t speak to the reason it took three years for renovations to be completed, but said the government has increased supports in La Loche and will keep doing so.
“There was a memorandum of understanding signed to continue those efforts and listen to what’s needed,” Harpauer said. “What’s needed today might not be what’s needed tomorrow.”
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