Out of the Humboldt tragedy comes a ray of light from Jacob Leicht

When their son was killed in the Humboldt bus crash in 2018, Kurt Leicht and Celeste Leray-Leicht tried to find some purpose amid profound tragedy. Two years later, the Northern Lights Movement for Kids in Jacob Leicht's memory is helping to bridge gaps between indigenous and non-indigenous kids in Saskatchewan.
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Jacob Leicht

Two years ago, I was sitting in Jacob Leicht’s basement bedroom in Humboldt, Sask., four days after he was killed in the worst tragedy in Canadian sports history. His parents, Kurt Leicht and Celeste Leray-Leicht, talked about how the teachers at his high school used to rave about how diligently he must have practiced the saxophone when they never saw him bring it home once. They remembered when he was a young boy and he stumbled down the ladder of a play structure, hitting his cheek on each rung on the way down, then played a piano recital the next day with his left eye swollen shut. There was a half-drunk glass of water and an SAT practice book on the dresser, a crossbow he received for Christmas and never got to use and a Bible on his bed marked at Psalm 18 in the Old Testament.

It was there that Celeste Leray-Leicht told me about how she was sitting at her kitchen table on the morning of April 8, 2018, two days after the Humboldt bus crash that had killed 15 people and would claim the life of trainer Dayna Brons five days later. She was preparing to drive to the morgue in Saskatoon for the second time, this time taking her parents and her son to view 19-year-old Jacob before his autopsy. She prayed to God to help Jacob give her some purpose, to show her what she was supposed to do to survive this.

And it was at that moment the Northern Lights Movement for Kids was born. There has been so much good to come out of such profound tragedy in the past two years. Logan Boulet, one of the players who died in the crash, had donated his organs and that gesture, along with work by his family, has raised enormous amounts of awareness around the issue of organ donation. The Bronco families have spent the past two years furiously advocating for stricter regulations for the trucking industry and to have all buses equipped with seatbelts. And the Leichts have done their part, creating a grassroots movement in their son’s memory whose aims are simple and pure, but not quite as easy to pull off as you’d think.

“The aim is for kids to build relationships and make connections with each other and become friends,” Leray-Leicht said. Specifically, the movement is designed to foster relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous children and help bridge the isolation gap that may indigenous children face. The group has a Facebook page and a Twitter handle (@lightskids) and uses social media and letter writing to bring children together. “I just thought we could do better.”

The movement has nothing to do with the politics that surrounds this issue in Canada. Nor does it have anything to do with past wrongs. Leray-Leicht said she was struck by how much attention and support the families of the Broncos players received after the accident, “and that’s not the case with so many situations for people in First Nations communities especially who suffer tragedy,” she said. “And often the highlights are on the negative.” Former Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson once said, “Misunderstanding arising from ignorance breeds fear, and fear remains the greatest enemy of peace.” And he was 100 percent spot on. The Northern Lights Movement for Kids, in its own small way, wants to tear down those barriers that lead to ignorance, which leads to misunderstanding, mistrust and misperception. As we said, a simple objective. Not such an easy task.

But they are setting out to do just that. A vice-principal at a faith-based school in Humboldt, Leray-Leicht and the movement have used the school systems to help deliver their message, establish pen-pal campaigns and a dialogue between non-indigenous schools in the south and indigenous schools in the north. In January of 2019, Leray-Leicht and a group from Humboldt traveled more than 400 miles north to the Dene High School in La Loche, Sask., where four years ago a 17-year-old boy shot and killed four people. The school held a grand reopening and Leicht was invited to attend. “It was such a magical day,” Leray-Leicht said. “It was an experience I’ll never forget.” Then last November, four students, a teacher and a social worker from the high school in La Loche came to Saskatoon to meet Humboldt students at a student leadership conference.

As she forges on, Leray-Leicht does so with the memory of her son guiding her, who taught her and a lot of people about the importance of tolerance. “He was not a judgmental kid, he didn’t have hang-ups,” Leray-Leicht said. “Areas where I might have prejudices or hang-ups of judgments or ignorance, they didn’t really enter his mind."

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