The Star: With help from Raptors giant Masai Ujiri, teens from La Loche learn to dream big: Arthur

The photo was a sea of First Nations faces lit by candles, growing blurrier the further they got from the camera, but something jumped out at Marci Ien. One of the children in the forgiveness circle was wearing a Toronto Raptors hat. She knew Raptors president Masai Ujiri a little; she sent him an email. The subject line read, simply, “School Shooting.”

Within seconds, her phone rang. It was Ujiri. How could he help?

Greg Hatch only answered the phone call because he happened to be passing by the school secretary’s desk. After the school shootings in La Loche in January of last year, media descended on the north Saskatchewan town, and the town was tired of media. But Marci from CTV was calling for the principal again, and he was the acting principal. Fine.

“Best phone call I took,” says Hatch now.

Hatch was the acting principal because on Jan. 22 last year, a 17-year-old shot two younger cousins at home, and then came to school and killed a teacher and a teacher’s aide. In the aftermath the school administration went on leave; Hatch, a longtime fixture at the school, returned. The tiny town at the end of the highway was the centre of things for a few days, with politicians flying in and out. Then it stopped, and just the damage was left.

“We felt that we’ve been left on our own, and we’ve been abandoned,” says Hatch, who has been in La Loche since coming there from Dryden, Ont., as a teacher in 1976, and who coached the town’s still-legendary 1983 basketball team that won the provincial title. “Not by individuals, but by the systems, the big systems. People came, and they left.

“Yeah, we’re hurting. We had people that went through a very traumatic event. And I think, just trying to understand what trauma is, what trauma actually is. Our community has been through a lot of trauma, and it wasn’t just January 22nd. And it continued after January 22nd. I think it’s the whole trauma. Generations of trauma.”

He heard real caring in Ien’s voice — she was anchoring on CTV when the news broke, and couldn’t sleep that night — and told her, look, we have a hot breakfast program here, and funds are running low. We want to start a hot lunch program, too, because in the winter kids can’t get home for lunch. There are real needs. But if you and Ujiri want to help, come here and see what it is.

When Masai Ujiri came to America he played at Bismarck State College, and one of his teammates, along with his best friend Godwin Owinje, was a kid named Jesse McLaughlin from the Sioux Standing Rock Tribe, about an hour away. There were more aboriginal kids on the team, but they fell off as school started, and Jesse was the only one left. He, Masai and Godwin became buddies.

“I think it’s because being in Bismarck and being minorities, we all stuck together,” says McLaughlin, who is now a vice-chairman of the tribe, which became a national story during the recent Dakota Access Pipeline protests. “I never took as much time with other teammates. I never had that same close bond.”

Jesse would take Masai and Godwin to the rez, and his aunts would make them food: pheasant, or Indian tacos, tacos made with frybread. The elder ladies liked Masai; he could speak a lot of languages, and would remember their names. Jesse didn’t bring a lot of other teammates home — “a lot of guys didn’t like coming down, and travelling … but when I did take them around, they didn’t absorb what was around like those guys.”

“I didn’t separate white from black from natives,” says Ujiri. “All I know is those were my friends, and we were in their homes. You know what I mean?”

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