‘Total blackness:’ Remembering Alberta school shooting 20 years later

TABER, Alta. — It was a snowy, spring day on April 28, 1999, when an angry teenager walked through the doors of W.R. Myers High School.

Wearing a blue trench coat, the 14-year-old pulled out a sawed off .22-calibre rifle and fired four shots in the hallway of the public school in Taber, a small agricultural community in the heart of Alberta’s southern Bible Belt.

One bullet struck Jason Lang, a 17-year-old Grade 11 student.

His friend Shane Christmas, also 17, was blasted in the stomach.

Lang died. Christmas survived.

“It still affects me 20 years later,” says Christmas. “It affects every aspect of my adult life.”

Christmas, who now lives in nearby Lethbridge, says in a brief online message that he has since forgiven the gunman, who was arrested by an unarmed school resource officer that day. Court later heard the teen was the victim of bullying.

Christmas says he thinks about what happened every day.

“Work has been a struggle. Life in general is a struggle.”

The shooting came eight days after the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., where 12 students and one teacher were killed.

With every school shooting in the United States that has happened since then, along with the 2016 shooting in La Loche, Sask. where four people died and seven were injured, the memories come flooding back, says Dale Lang, Jason’s father.

“It immediately brings you back to your experience and the horror,” he says.

“You get that sort of tenseness in your gut for a few seconds, as you hear some other families are going to have to go through the pain and the suffering of losing a child.”

Lang remembers being called to the hospital, where doctors worked to save his son’s life.

“And then somebody came out and told us he did not make it. And that was a moment of total blackness,” he says.

“You don’t forget these things and you mark every year as it goes by.”

Lang, an Anglican minister at the time, became a tireless crusader for nearly a decade against the sort of bullying and school violence that led to the shooting.

He then walked away from organized religion. He’s now driving a handicap-accessible bus in Taber.

“Faith has always been strong and it never really left me. I pray every day and I read scripture every day. And I ask God what’s going on in the world and what I should be doing.”

He says he has talked to the shooter’s mother and is long past anger.

“We forgive him,” says Lang. “It frees me up. And I don’t have to think about and concentrate on this person who killed my son.”

The shooter entered guilty pleas to first-degree murder and attempted murder in youth court in 2000 and was sentenced to three years in jail and seven years of probation.

Calgary lawyer Balfour Der represented the teen and says the case is never far from his mind.

“Two young men were hit … and they had nothing to do with my client, ever.

“He just swung this thing out Columbine-like from that long trench coat that he had. He shot from the hip with a gun that’s inaccurate and the chances of hitting anything … is astronomical.”

Der remembers how his client was locked in a school locker and beaten by a group of boys and girls while alone on a playground. “They were laughing at him and one of the girls had one of those small Instamatic cameras. And they were taking pictures of the boy lying on the ground bleeding.”

He described the teen as a scrawny kid with a bad complexion and glasses.

“He looked like anything but a killer.”

Wilco Tymensen, superintendent of the Horizon School Division, says the shooting spearheaded a conversation in Canada about the mental health of students, along with needed supports and threat assessments.

The shooting is a sensitive subject for some staff who were at W.R. Myers in 1999 and are still there, he says. Although a plaque about the shooting hangs in the school, the tragedy isn’t referenced in any classes.

“If you think about the age of the students who were in the building 20 years ago, they’re now parents and it’s their children that are in that building. There’s a heightened sensitivity,” he says.

“We’re famous for a tragedy and I don’t think anyone wants to be famous for that.”

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