WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
Smoke billowed out the top of a teepee near an event centre in Melfort, Sask., on Monday.
Inside, firekeepers tended to the flames as a way to provide healing and emotional strength for the people attending the coroner’s inquest happening at the centre.
The inquest is being held to examine the fatal stabbings that happened on James Smith Cree Nation in 2022.
On Sept. 4, 2022, Myles Sanderson, a community member, killed 11 people and attempted to kill 17 others. All of the victims were attacked on James Smith Cree Nation, except one elderly man who was killed at his home in the nearby village of Weldon.
The purpose of the coroner’s inquest is to set the public record straight about what happened during the stabbings and to prevent similar tragedies in the future.
While it is a chance to honour the victims killed in the attacks, it could also be retraumatizing for some. That’s why there are supports, like the fire, in place.
“The fire is to look after the people. Some of them are still mourning. Some of them are carrying grief. Some of them are angry. Some of them, they’re kind of lost,” said firekeeper Randy Burns, who is from James Smith Cree Nation. “But we have the fire there for a reason, for them.”
The firekeeper knows how deeply this mass tragedy has affected people. He lost many relatives in the stabbings.
“I’m still hurting inside — I’m looking after myself with the fire, going to sweats, doing traditional teachings.”
The victims killed in the attacks were Carol Burns and her son Thomas Burns, Gloria Burns, Bonnie Goodvoice-Burns and her son Gregory ”Jonesy” Burns, Earl Burns Sr., Lana and Christian Head, Robert Sanderson, Wesley Petterson (of Weldon) and Damien Sanderson — Myles Sanderson’s brother.
Myles Sanderson, 32, died in custody shortly after police arrested him on Sept. 7, 2022. His death meant there could not be a trial to offer insight into how and why the stabbings happened, so the Saskatchewan Coroners Service decided to run an inquest.
“I think it’s important that we hold an inquest so the public and the families and the people that live on James Smith can understand, really, what happened on that day,” said Clive Weighill, Saskatchewan’s chief coroner.
Weighill said the Coroners Service has worked closely with the RCMP, elders and community members in preparation for the inquest.
“There’s been mental health specialists working with the families for any emotional trauma.… There will be people at the inquest that will be there if anybody starts to get triggered,” Weighill said. “We’ll also have elders there as well too, for people that would want more traditional healing.”
There is also a wellness room for affected people on site.
‘Largest homicide investigation’
The first witness to speak at the inquiry was Staff Sgt. Robin Zentner, who works with the RCMP’s major crimes unit and was called to James Smith Cree Nation on Sept. 4, 2022.
He had a 188-slide PowerPoint presentation for the jury that details the police investigation into the stabbings.
“This investigation was the largest homicide investigation in Saskatchewan RCMP’s history,” Zentner said. It involved 548 RCMP employees, members of various municipal police services and other provincial and federal law enforcement agencies.
There were 42 separate crime scenes, 1,322 investigation tasks and 257 witness interviews, he said. Forensic specialists processed and examined more than 1,000 items.
Zentner then took the jury back in time.
He described in extensive detail how Myles and Damien (Myles’s brother and victim) interacted with several people on James Smith Cree Nation in the days leading up to the massacre. They visited with some people, but they also were involved in domestic conflict, assaulted or fought with several others, evaded police and sold drugs.
Police have gained insight into the escalating violence and chaos that occurred through text messages sent by Damien.
Ominous text messages shared
About 24 hours before the attacks, Damien messaged his wife in a series of texts that he was: “down to die me and my brother … so wish me luck … I’m not scared to die.”
Damien’s wife had called the police on him because he had taken her vehicle and wouldn’t give it back. Upon reflection, Zentner said Damien’s messages didn’t seem proportional to the vehicle issue, and that he now assumes Damien was referring to the attacks to come.
One message said, “we aint going down alive.”
Much less is known about Myles’s state of mind at this time, but one witness told police that she saw Myles around this time and said he looked as if he was about to cry when he told her, “He could not do life anymore and that he was screwed up.”
In the early hours of Sept. 4, Damien also messaged Kelly Shane Burns, saying, “everything is not good right now, your lil bro is lost, I’m not ok.”
When Burns responded that he was going through “his own shit,” Damien said he “just had to tell someone.”
After sending those messages, Damien was spotted guzzling booze with his brother Myles. The brothers were reportedly “pumping themselves up for something” and Myles asked a woman for a knife, but she said no so they left the home.
Just before the stabbings began, Damien messaged his wife saying he loved her and that this would be his last message.
That was followed by him saying “we going out.”
On Tuesday, Zentner’s evidence will continue as he details the timeline of the murders and attempted murders on James Smith Cree Nation.
Sanderson a wanted man at time of killings
Grieving family members still have many questions about why Myles Sanderson was at large in their community because at the time of the stabbings, he was wanted by police on a Canada-wide arrest warrant.
Zentner said Myles had a lengthy and violent criminal past, having racked up 78 convictions between 2004 and 2019. Sixteen of those convictions involved an assault and many of those assaults involved someone related to him.
Myles had been released from prison on statutory release in August 2021, according to parole documents. Statutory release occurs when federal offenders have served two-thirds of a fixed-length sentence.
He had been serving a nearly five-year sentence for assault, robbery, mischief and uttering threats. Upon his release, Myles should have been reporting regularly to a Correctional Service of Canada parole officer and abiding by certain conditions.
But a few months before the stabbings, he was declared to be “unlawfully at large.”
There are several different groups who have “standing” at the inquest, meaning they can question witnesses who give evidence.
The parties include James Smith Cree Nation, the RCMP, the Correctional Service of Canada, the Parole Board of Canada and the Saskatchewan Ministry of Corrections, Policing and Public Safety.
There are also relatives of the deceased who have standing, including Darryl Burns (brother to Lydia Gloria Burns), Deb Burns (daughter to Earl Burns), Carmen Head (relative to Christian Head), Chelsea Stonesand (relative to Bonnie Goodvoice-Burns and Gregory Burns) and Ida Burns (relative to Carol Burns).
Inquest most complex ever seen in province
The inquest opened Monday with remarks from Elder Hal Eagletail, who smudged then shared a prayer and a song to summon strength for the difficult weeks ahead.
This is the longest and largest inquest ever run in Saskatchewan. It’s scheduled for Jan. 15 to Feb. 2 at the Kerry Vickar Centre in Melfort, Sask., a small city about 30 kilometres southeast of James Smith Cree Nation.
James Smith Chief Wally Burns said it’s still a long healing road ahead for members of the First Nation, and this inquest is just one part of that complicated process.
“We lost many loved ones,” he said. “Having this and understanding the concept and policies and procedures, I think, you know, it’s going to set some closure, but the hurt is still there.”
The inquest, presided over by Coroner Blaine Beaven, began with jury selection on Monday at 10:00 a.m. CST.
Beaven said 31 witnesses are expected to present evidence to a jury made up of eight Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
At the end of the inquest, six of the jurors will be tasked with making recommendations to prevent similar tragedies.
A separate inquest will be held to examine the circumstances leading to Myles Sanderson’s in-custody death in Saskatoon on Feb. 26 to March 1.
Support is available for people affected by this tragedy. The Hope for Wellness hotline offers immediate help to Indigenous people across Canada. Mental health counselling and crisis support is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.
You can talk to a mental health professional via Wellness Together Canada by calling 1-866-585-0445 or text WELLNESS to 686868 for youth or 741741 for adults. It is free and confidential.
Talking Stick is a Saskatchewan-based free anonymous chat platform that connects people seeking emotional support to a trained Indigenous peer advocate 24/7.
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