'Going to take years': Saskatchewan First Nation marks anniversary of mass stabbing

JAMES SMITH CREE NATION — Robert Head says people on his First Nation experienced one their worst mornings on Monday as they marked the anniversary of last year's mass stabbing.

The chief of the Peter Chapman Band, which is part of James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, said people cried and held each other tightly, remembering the 11 people killed and 17 injured in the community and the nearby village of Weldon.

Myles Sanderson, 32, had moved from one home to another last year, busting down doors and attacking people. A chaotic three-day manhunt ensued, with Sanderson later going into medical distress and dying in police custody.

"It was a warzone here," Head told reporters at a gathering to commemorate the tragedy. "Many of their loved ones had laid in front of them in very, very awful situations that nobody should ever see."

Members of the First Nation began the day with a pipe ceremony. They then attended a memorial service at church.

While it was a day of sadness, it was also a time to celebrate the victims' lives, said Chief Wally Burns of James Smith Cree Nation.

He said Gloria Burns, an addictions counsellor who was killed last year, was instrumental. He said she was the community's "queen."

"I don't know how that's going to work in heaven, because there's going to be two queens up there," the chief said of Gloria Burns, with a chuckle.

The First Nation opened a new gazebo outside the health centre Monday in her honour.

Head said the stabbings were a culmination of intergenerational trauma and discriminatory policies that affect Indigenous Peoples.

"Residential school abuses, alcoholism, discrimination, it's all combined and drives people to do awful things in this world," he said.

Burns added the "justice system failed Myles."

"If we were warned, a year in advance, on how he was released, we would have caught on to this," he said. "So the whole system itself failed us."

Sanderson, who had a violent past, was on statutory releaseand had been unlawfully at large in May 2022 before the stabbings. A national board created by the Parole Board of Canada and Correctional Service of Canada has been investigating Sanderson's release, and is expected to outline recommendations in a report this fall.

Chief Calvin Sanderson of the Chakastaypasin Band, which is part of James Smith Cree Nation, said drugs continue to persist in the community. He asked people to no longer bring in substances.

Myles Sanderson has been driving around selling drugs days before he began his rampage.

"We never created those hardcore drugs. They came in and came in for our membership. Now we have to try and get them back on that path safely," he said. "All I have to say is keep moving forward, and seriously look at your mental wellness."

Head said the country needs to move forward with reconciliation efforts to help communities heal.

"When you lose someone so important in your life, the pain doesn't go away, the sadness doesn't go away. It's there with you forever," he said. "How you deal with it is through ceremony, through prayer and through support of your community and your loved ones."

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu, who also spoke at the gathering, said the federal government is working to help communities by providing financial resources.

She said $9.3 million has been spent on immediate supports, such as therapy. Ottawa has also committed $42.5 million over six years to build a new mental wellness centre.

"This happened as a byproduct of generations of families being inflicted with loss, grief and trauma, as a result of a colonial approach," the minister said.

"It should have never been like this. And so the responsibility of the federal government, and I think all Canadians, is to wrap our arms around James Smith Cree Nation."

Hajdu said Ottawa is looking into changing legislation that aims to recognize First Nations’ rights to self-determination, which includes Indigenous-run policing.

She did not offer a timeline on when legislation is expected to pass, adding it'll also be up to First Nations' communities to set their own timelines.

James Smith Cree Nation is working towards its own police service, though the chiefs have said it could take at least five years.

Burns said Indigenous-run policing is part of the solution, as well as getting everyone involved in culture, especially young people.

"Healing is not an overnight project," Head said. "It's going to take years."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 4, 2023.

Jeremy Simes, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said Myles Sanderson had been out on parole.