July 21st, 2024

‘Still grieving:’ Saskatchewan First Nation prepares for stabbing rampage inquest

By The Canadian Press on January 14, 2024.

Chief Wally Burns of the James Smith Cree Nation says he knows that wounds will be torn open and trauma will resurface as his community prepares for an inquest into the killings of 11 people. Burns stands for a photograph in a classroom at the school on James Smith Cree Nation on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Liam Richards

JAMES SMITH CREE NATION – The chief of a Saskatchewan First Nation says he knows wounds will likely be torn open as his community prepares to revisit the day a mass killer went door to door stabbing people.

“Our community is still grieving,” says Chief Wally Burns of the James Smith Cree Nation, northeast of Saskatoon.

A coroner’s inquest is set to begin Monday to find out what happened on Sept. 4, 2022, when Myles Sanderson went on the stabbing rampage in the First Nation and nearby village of Weldon.

He killed 11 people and injured 17 others.

Sanderson, 32, a member of the First Nation, died in police custody a few days later.

The inquest in Melfort, south of the First Nation, is to establish the events leading up to the deaths, who died and when and where each person was killed.

A second inquest focusing on Sanderson’s death is scheduled in February. Public inquests are mandatory in Saskatchewan when a person dies in police custody.

“It’s going to open up a lot of wounds, a lot of trauma,” Burns says.

The mass killing and manhunt for Sanderson devastated the tight-knit First Nation, which sits near the banks of the North Saskatchewan River. RCMP have described how Sanderson stole vehicles, busted down doors and stabbed people during the chaotic and unpredictable attack.

RCMP have said because Sanderson is dead, a full picture of what happened and why may never be known.

Burns says the First Nation has leaned on culture and traditions to try to find healing, but the hole left by loved ones who were killed remains.

A coroner was in the community last week to prepare the victims’ families for graphic details expected to be presented during the inquest, Burns says. The chief’s nephew and cousins were among those killed. He didn’t want to seethe photos of their injuries, instead choosing to remember their spirits and how they lived.

The goal of a coroner’s inquest is for a jury to determine the factual circumstances behind the deaths and to come up with recommendations that may be able to prevent similar cases in the future. The provincial and federal governments are not bound to act on the recommendations.

An inquest is most commonly used when a person dies in custody, while being arrested or when incarcerated.

“It’s a bit of an unusual fit in this circumstance of a mass casualty event,” says Keith Brown, the lawyer representing the First Nation in both inquests, in a phone interview from Vancouver.

The one-size-fits-all approach has limitations when applied to the stabbing rampage, Brown says.

“The coroner’s inquest process here was not co-designed with the nation,” he says.

“James Smith didn’t have and does not have any say in what the inquest process looks like, how it’s going to roll out, what jury members will be chosen or anything else like that.”

It leaves the community, the most affected by the violence, with limited rights to participate, Brown says. The First Nation is restricted to questioning witnesses and cannot suggest recommendations. The inquest also does not find liability or fault.

“It isn’t set up to point the finger at anyone,” Brown says.

The lawyer and the chief say a federal inquiry would have been a better way to understand what led to the killings. It would have a broader scope, include more Indigenous perspectives and be more capable of analyzing systemic issues that contributed to the attacks, they say.

However, Brown and Burns say, the upcoming inquest can be a first step.

“The nation is hopeful that the inquest will provide further information about the deaths, both to the families and the general public, so that they can understand how the tragedy came about and maybe to that extent provide some level of closure or insight,” Brown says.

What the community is looking for is action. The chief says members want self-administered policing to be found an essential service that the First Nation is entitled to. They want reform within the correctional and parole systems to ensure people get meaningful programming and support upon release.

They also want First Nations to be considered when decisions are made on whether or not to release community members from custody. That includes notifying the First Nation of a release.

Burns says he wasn’t informed Sanderson was getting out of prison before the stabbings.

Sanderson, who had a record of violent assaults, had received statutory release earlier that year but was unlawfully at large at time of the killings.

The stabbings raised questions about why he was released and how he managed to remain free in the months leading up to the attacks.

A parole board and Correctional Service Canada joint investigation into Sanderson’s release has not been made public.

“I’m really frustrated with our system, because it’s not working. When it’s not working, it failed “¦ and look what happens,” the chief says.

It’s too early to know the outcome of the inquest, Burns says.

But, once again, the First Nation will lean on tradition and ceremony to support members as they relive the terrible nightmare of the rampage, he says.

“I was taught through ceremony that we can’t leave anybody behind.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 14, 2024.

– By Kelly Geraldine Malone in Saskatoon

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