Sitting in the bay window of her home in Bass River, N.S., Joy Snihur Wyatt Laking painted all morning on April 19, 2020, not knowing that three of her friends were killed the night before.
She painted, as she always did, to showcase the spontaneous beauty she saw around her.
But the tragedy of the mass shooting tore through that vision of joy, and the brush suddenly felt too heavy to hold.
“After the tragedy, I couldn’t see beauty anywhere. (I couldn’t paint.) I didn’t want to go out in the woods and sit,” Laking said as she shook her head.
She wore a black sweater featuring the most famous painting by Vincent Van Gogh, The Starry Night, which he painted in 1889 when he was suffering from depression.
Blue dominates the painting, blending hills into the sky, which stands in sharp contrast with Laking’s bright and richly coloured paintings that decorate her walls.
Laking has been painting Nova Scotia’s natural landscapes and towns for 44 years, and to her, all of her paintings “sing.”
But a dark shift away from the bright light took place inside of her when Laking first found out that her friend, Lisa McCully, was shot dead.
On April 18, 2020, McCully was one of 22 people killed by a gunman dressed as an RCMP officer,who terrorized the province during a 13-hour rampage across rural Nova Scotia.
McCully was a 49-year-old schoolteacher and was killed in her own home.
To Laking, McCully was a “lovely person” who came to every open house at Joy Laking Gallery with her children.
Four days later, Laking got the news that two of her other friends, Joanne Thomas, 58, who grew up in Winnipeg, and her husband, John Zahl, 69, were also shot dead.
“They were relatively new to our area and they were just really fantastic people,” Laking said.
The couple’s house, which was burned to the ground, was one of 16 crime scenes that were being investigated as part of the tragic series of events.
“I’m not doing well. I’m just still devastated. I have never really had a serious depression, but I sure do now,” she said.
Laking’s personal story is one of three that will be told by Global News in the coming days to show how people living in the community are healing almost a year after the tragic shooting.
Through her art, Laking has found a way to cope. She could rely on her imagination, watercolours and paper to soothe her wounds, although she knows that’s not enough for her to heal from what happened.
“Our biggest problem here, and I realize that most of Nova Scotia do not have family doctors… I have an incredible psychiatrist and therapist…but we don’t have any continuity of care,” said Laking, feeling frustrated and having to look away to compose herself.
Laking has been married to a retired lawyer for 14 years and has a son and daughter whom she continues to see.
She explained that Dalhousie University in Halifax would bring doctors and medical students to the area to have a “collaborative practice,” but that only happened sporadically.
“I’ve seen three different ones. It’s a whole different thing when you’re seeing somebody that doesn’t know your history.”
This is why “art is everything … what kept me alive,” said Laking.
She would go to the studio five hours every day to cope and remember the victims amid the beautiful colours she uses for her paintings.
Support being offered for Nova Scotia’s impacted by mass shooting
Laking has also contacted McCully’s family saying that she’s prepared to offer her children art classes if they ever wanted to in the hopes that it might help.
She understands that being surrounded by friends and loved ones during tough times is valuable for one’s healing, but that wasn’t possible due to the COVID-19 pandemic last year and even now.
“COVID-19 added onto the pressure… You can’t get together with friends, you can’t give people a hug, and you can’t even hug your children.”
As someone who has asthma and muscular dystrophy, Laking is also trying to be very careful and not go out much, which also made her feel disconnected from the rest of the community.
“It’s our whole shore that should be pulling together as a community because, like, this, Portapique, is a place name, and it used to be a community, but now with no school, no church, no store… it doesn’t have the cohesiveness now,” she said.
On top of that, Laking said people in the community are “desperate for medical care.”
“We need somebody that we can rely on and that will be there next week and the week after,” she said.
In the wake of the upcoming first anniversary of the mass shooting, Laking said she can’t help but think of the community’s children.
“All the kids in the school, they might not have lost their moms and dads, and especially the kids who did. I mean, this is huge… and we’re all just kind of dealing with it our own way… and I don’t know if it’ll ever be any good.”
In the meantime, Laking said she’s looking forward to the inquiry into the mass shooting that will be taking place.
The commission of inquiry, formally known as the mass casualty commission, will begin its work investigating how the attack took place and whether there’s anything that could have been done to prevent it.
But before it does, the commission has been accepting applications from potential participants from March until early April. Some people have already been granted permission to participate, including surviving victims and the families of the victims.
“I think when we knew that there were weapons and that there was domestic violence that was reported to police, but it was not taken seriously… This just gives me goosebumps thinking about it. I really hope that by looking at the whole thing, this will never happen again,” said Laking.
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