Chaos and ‘human error’: Why the James Smith Cree Nation massacre could happen again

James Smith Cree Nation
Click to play video: 'Families seek change for James Smith Cree Nation'
Families seek change for James Smith Cree Nation
The community of James Smith Cree Nation wants to see action in the wake of the deadly stabbing attack on Sept. 4, 2022. – Jan 31, 2024

A string of failures by authorities preceded, and followed, the 2022 stabbing rampage on James Smith Cree Nation (JSCN).

But despite the efforts of a lengthy coroner’s inquest held to examine the details of what happened that day and how similar tragedies could be prevented in the future, witness after witness admitted they’re not sure much could have been done differently.

The inquest into the massacre that left 11 dead and 17 injured on Sept. 4, 2022, concluded this week, after more than two weeks of gruelling testimony from first responders, forensic pathologists, Parole Board of Canada officials, and those who worked with mass murderer Myles Sanderson in prison.

The coroner’s inquest into the James Smith Cree Nation murders is being held at the Kerry Vickar Centre in Melfort, Sask. Slavo Kutas

Families of murder victims gathered at the Kerry Vickar Centre in Melfort, Sask., in the hopes of hearing answers their questions about failures that they believe allowed Myles to carry out his rampage. Why wasn’t more done to apprehend him earlier, considering there was a warrant out for Sanderson’s arrest? Why was JSCN leadership not informed of his release from prison, or of his outstanding warrant? Could a faster emergency response time have saved any of the victims?

And, perhaps most importantly, could one of Canada’s worst mass murders have been prevented?

The answers, from the witnesses on the stand at least, weren’t what families say they had hoped for. Many acknowledged that while failures were made — such as a wrong suspect photo issued by RCMP, a perceived slow response time, a lack of communication with JSCN, and, Global News discovered, multiple trips to JSCN the day by RCMP before the murders — they didn’t believe these failures played a significant role on Sept. 4. When asked what recommendations could be made by the jury, many did not have an answer.

Click to play video: 'Family disappointed in answers in Sask. stabbing inquest'
Family disappointed in answers in Sask. stabbing inquest

JSCN community members, however, were adamant that the tragedy was rooted in intergenerational trauma — and more support was needed to deal with substance abuse and mental health issues.

An abusive childhood was behind Sanderson’s substance abuse, the inquest heard, and he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol when he committed many of his crimes. Many of the murder victims had drugs or alcohol in their system when they died.

While the jury’s mandate was to forensically examine this tragedy, it soon became about much more than that.

The jury and coroner seemed to realize this, delivering 29 recommendations — the most Chief Coroner Clive Weighill says he has ever seen from an inquest in Saskatchewan. Most of those addressed communication issues between JSCN and agencies, the implementation of staff and resources, and better mental health supports.

Click to play video: 'Indigenous groups focus on First Nation policing after inquest'
Indigenous groups focus on First Nation policing after inquest

It was a shock to murder victim’s families who had otherwise lost faith in the process.

“The recommendations are great, but it’s up to the CSC and Parole Board to implement them,” Vanessa Burns, Sanderson’s common-law partner of 14 years, told Global News. “I don’t have a lot of hope when it comes to our First Nations’ issues and their systems.”

That’s because it came after two weeks of explanations of “human error,” near misses and missed opportunities — many of which, witnesses testified, could not have prevented the tragedy.

Sanderson's criminal file 'quite standard'

At the time of the murders, Sanderson’s criminal file was already lengthy. He’d notched up 78 adult convictions — including 10 for assault with a weapon, five for assault causing bodily harm, and two for being unlawfully at large.

In 2015, he tried to stab Vanessa’s parents to death. Upon his release for that crime, he stabbed two men, beat one of them unconscious and fought with police. Together with other crimes he committed around that time, he was sentenced to over four years in prison.

He received statutory release in August 2021. Four months later, that release was suspended after he lied about his living arrangements. In February 2022, the parole board cancelled that suspension and Sanderson again received statutory release with a reprimand. That May, he was deemed unlawfully at large after he stopped communicating with his parole officer.

Click to play video: 'Ex-partner of Saskatchewan mass murderer shares story of abuse, survival, and hope'
Ex-partner of Saskatchewan mass murderer shares story of abuse, survival, and hope

With such a record, many believe law enforcement should have kept a closer eye on him.

But, according to RCMP, Sanderson’s criminal file was somewhat unremarkable. During the inquest, Staff Sgt. Ryan Howe with the RCMP’s Saskatchewan enforcement response team, said Sanderson’s record was “quite standard” and he was unlikely to have made the province’s “60 most wanted” list. He wasn’t even on their radar. Howe said there are active warrants for approximately 5,000 people in Saskatchewan at any time. Half of those are for violent offences.


A point-based system is now used to prioritize offenders. Sanderson would have scored 105 on that system. As of mid-January, 18 people have a score of over 1,000 points, Howe said.

James Smith Cree Nation
Myles Sanderson, pictured after the birth of his daughter Adrianna. Supplied

Others who dealt with Sanderson said he had looked to be on the right path when he was released. Parole officer Jessica Dix said his behaviour “evolved over time.” He was not in fights in prison and passed all his drug tests. He was, apparently, not part of a gang.

Two elders working with the Correctional Service of Canada said Sanderson had been working through his issues, which were mainly related to his upbringing.

Vanessa Burns says her on-off relationship with Myles Sanderson cost her 15 years of happiness. Supplied

Natasha Melanson, Sanderson’s community parole officer, said he was respectful and “on target” while on statutory release. He’d taken part in the highest intensity Indigenous programming while at Saskatchewan Penitentiary and was doing couples counselling.

“There was nothing leading up to this that would suggest he would be capable of what happened,” she told the inquest.

She also said parole officers can’t “assume everybody is up to no good and everybody’s doing things behind my back.”

But, perhaps in some circumstances, family members believe, they should.

Sanderson knew how to manipulate people


In her testimony, Sanderson’s common-law partner was unequivocal in her belief that he knew how to manipulate people.

“He knew when he was young … he even fooled me this time,” Vanessa Burns said.

“They know how to groom their victims. They know what their victims’ needs are and wants and know how to take advantage of that.”

Vanessa spoke exclusively to Global News shortly after the murders about her life with Sanderson — a life marred by domestic violence, substance abuse and self loathing.

She was not surprised when former RCMP staff sergeant Matt Logan, now an expert in investigative criminal psychology who performed a post-mortem behavioural analysis on Sanderson, told the inquest that he had traits of anti-social personality disorder, intermittent explosive disorder and psychopathy, as well as potentially suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome. Sanderson’s mother had admitted drinking during her pregnancy, Logan said.

Myles Sanderson, Vanessa Burns and three of their children. Supplied

Many of his issues, Logan believed, stemmed from his upbringing. He was bounced between his mother’s, father’s and grandparents’ homes and experienced childhood abuse.

He began using drugs and alcohol at age 12 “to cope with problems” and by age 14 was using cocaine, according to his parole records.

Most of his offenses were committed under the use of drugs or alcohol, Logan said. He had difficulty maintaining stable employment.


Sanderson had previously spoken of thoughts of suicide and struggles with anxiety and depression and believed he had post-traumatic stress disorder, Logan said.

Click to play video: 'Myles Sanderson’s parole officer breaks down their relationship before mass stabbing rampage'
Myles Sanderson’s parole officer breaks down their relationship before mass stabbing rampage

Logan said he believed Sanderson was at a high risk to reoffend, but that wasn’t necessarily out of the ordinary from other offenders he has assessed.

“There was probably nothing in those reports that would indicate to me that this was someone that was going to go on a rampage.”

Deborah Burns, Vanessa’s sister, who had standing at the inquest to question witnesses, asked Logan if he believed Myles “fell through the gaps.”

“I do,” Logan replied.

Burns estimates that Sanderson beat her more than 100 times over the course of their relationship. Supplied

But, later in the inquest, McGale, who performed a 2020 assessment on Sanderson, contested Logan’s hypothesis, saying he did not fit the profile of a psychopath.

McGale said Sanderson showed some traits of anti-social personality disorder and considered him a moderate risk to reoffend violently.

But one of the biggest predictors for future violence, in McGale’s opinion, was Myles’ use of drugs and alcohol.

The elders who had worked with Sanderson in prison recommended more support for people to lead a life of sobriety when they return to their communities, saying substance abuse was the “main factor” that prompted people to commit crime.

RCMP attended JSCN multiple times in lead-up to murders

Upon his release in February 2022, Sanderson went to Saskatoon to live with his father instead of to JSCN, where he initially indicated he would go. While the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) is required by law to notify an Indigenous community if a violent offender is going to be released to the area, it did not follow up with the band to warn of Sanderson’s release because of the change in his living arrangements.

Saskatoon Parole Office supervisor Linda Flahr testified that due to the Privacy Act, the office couldn’t contact JSCN about Sanderson’s warrant without his consent.

Global News asked for further clarification from the CSC on how the act prevented JSCN from being notified, but those questions were not answered.

Click to play video: 'Two Killings, the same day, one year apart: Why James Smith Cree Nation mourns'
Two Killings, the same day, one year apart: Why James Smith Cree Nation mourns

But several of the coroner’s recommendations addressed the CSC — namely, that they should follow-up with offenders, bring in more staff, resources and health programming, and communicate warrants with RCMP detachments.

In the days leading up to the murders, Sanderson was in JSCN selling drugs, according to the RCMP, and assaulting and threatening members of the community with his brother, Damien.

After a report by Global News, RCMP confirmed attending JSCN the day before the murders, when Skye Sanderson, Damien’s wife, called 911 to report her car stolen. Damien, who had an outstanding arrest warrant for domestic violence, had taken it to help Myles “cool off.”


But the RCMP actually attended JSCN more than once that day, in relation to acts committed by the Sanderson brothers. Buried in a 188-page PowerPoint presentation shown at the inquest, RCMP investigator Robin Zentner said Sanderson got into a “physical altercation” with a JSCN member on Sept. 3 and the RCMP were called to a house for a broken window. Neither Damien or Myles’ names were mentioned.

Skye Sanderson and her husband, Damien. Supplied

After being asked numerous times, RCMP told Global News that members actually attended JSCN at least three times on Sept. 3, in response to four calls for service.

RCMP members also failed to apprehend Damien that day, because when they located him in a house in the community, he gave the name of another JSCN member and they were relying on an outdated photo. Const. Tanner Maynard, who attended that call and spoke to a man he now knows was Damien, testified that he did not “believe we had the authority” to ask Damien for identification.

Click to play video: 'RCMP confirm Global News reports on James Smith Cree Nation suspect Damien Sanderson'
RCMP confirm Global News reports on James Smith Cree Nation suspect Damien Sanderson

Accounts differ over what happened next. Skye, who had arrived at the residence to retrieve her car, says she told members the photo was outdated and to go and check again. Maynard told the inquest he “can’t recall” if Skye pleaded with them to look again. Const. David Miller, who accompanied Maynard, said there was “never anything mentioned like that.”

Both testified that Myles’s name was never mentioned.

As the next 24 hours unfolded, Damien and Myles told people they were on a “mission.” Damien sent fatalistic messages to his wife and other family members, according to a search of phone data by RCMP.

None of that was reported to authorities.

Victims could not have been saved

The first 911 call from a stabbing victim on Sept. 4 was received by RCMP at 5:40 a.m. local time. Two members — Maynard and Miller — arrived on scene at 6:18 a.m. The 38 minutes it took them to arrive had long been a point of contention. JSCN members suggested an on-site RCMP officer or Indigenous policing could help response times.

That call also came in during a four-hour period that the detachment is unstaffed. It was also understaffed at the time — operating with  about 12 of the usual 16 members.

Const. Maynard, however, was in the office early that day. Miller was called in immediately. Dashcam footage showed the car reached a top speed of 178 km/h en route to JSCN.

Click to play video: 'Forensic pathologist says EMS had little chance of saving Sask. stabbing victims'
Forensic pathologist says EMS had little chance of saving Sask. stabbing victims

Staff Sgt. Darren Simons, the Melfort detachment commander at the time, was at home when he received the call to attend JSCN. He told the inquest that he stopped at a fast food restaurant en route to pick up breakfast for members already at the scene. When questioned by a family member about this decision, he said: “I didn’t realize the gravity of the situation then. … if I had known that I wouldn’t have stopped.”


As Myles rampaged across the community, he stole numerous vehicles. At one point, Maynard pulled up to a house with a white GMC parked outside, which he believed at the time to be Sanderson’s vehicle. In a screenshot taken from police dashcam footage, the car Sanderson was actually travelling in by that stage, a black Nissan Rogue, was captured on film just a few hundred metres down the road.

As the number of victims grew, and RCMP believed Myles and Damien (who was initially considered a suspect but who had actually been murdered by his brother) to still be on the loose, the decision was made to set up a triage centre at the band office and not to allow ambulances into the community. JSCN members had lambasted this decision, believing it led to the deaths of loved ones.

Dashcam footage also showed RCMP members Maynard and Simons driving past a school bus that had rolled into a ditch several times. Hours later, Simons would find the body of Earl Burns inside.

But, forensic pathologists Derek Musgrove and Shaun Ladham testified that nearly all victims likely died within 10 minutes of being attacked, with the exception of Damien, who may have survived for up to an hour.

The Burns family: Earl Jr., Vanessa, Deborah, Joyce and Earl. Supplied.

Those decisions evidently still haunt the first responders. Simons broke down as he was questioned by Deborah Burns, Earl’s daughter, about why the bus was not investigated earlier.

“I never imagined I would find what I found when I opened that bus door,” Simons said, through tears.

“I can’t imagine your loss but just know this one’s tough on me personally. And I apologize that your father did not get my attention earlier.”

Maynard similarly choked up when asked about the decisions he had to make in bypassing some crime scenes in order to try to track down Sanderson.

“It’s very hard to do, to walk past someone who’s been hurt or been stabbed in that case, and not be able to stop and help them. … But my goal at that point was to stop Myles Sanderson so he couldn’t hurt more people.”

The family of Earl Burns: left to right, daughters Deborah Burns and Vanessa Burns and his wife, Joyce Burns, hold a photograph of Earl following a Saskatchewan RCMP preliminary timeline presentation in April 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Liam Richards. ldr

Simons said he didn’t believe the understaffing at the detachment “had anything to do with what happened that day.”

However, he said a lack of new RCMP officers was an ongoing issue, after a lack of new trainees during the pandemic and the “defund the police” movement. Shortly after Sept. 4, the Melfort detachment dropped to about 50 per cent staffing levels. Three people went on medical leave due to the trauma of responding to the murders.

Criticisms were also raised about Saskatchewan’s emergency alert system. The first emergency alert about the stabbings was sent by RCMP at 7:12 a.m., 46 minutes after the on-call communications strategist received the first call, RCMP strategic communications officer Mandy Maier testified.

Click to play video: 'Why James Smith Cree Nation wasn’t warned of mass killer’s release from penitentiary'
Why James Smith Cree Nation wasn’t warned of mass killer’s release from penitentiary

But the first suspect photo RCMP released of Sanderson was wrong. Maier said this was a “human error,” when a photo of an individual with the exact same name and from the same community was taken from the police record system. It was soon rectified.

She said JSCN weren’t called to confirm the photo because they didn’t want to “delay critical information.”


Ensuring RCMP photos are clearly labelled and dated were part of the inquest’s recommendations.

Systemic issues still need attention: families

Sanderson didn’t go far during a three-day manhunt for him. RCMP say he camped in the bush near the house he would eventually steal a Chevy Avalanche from on Sept. 7, leading to his arrest near Rosthern, Sask. He died soon after in custody, after ingesting pills, a source told Global News.

Toxicology reports showed levels of various substances — ranging from alcohol to methamphetamine to cocaine to marijuana — in five of the victims’ bodies post-death.

Better support for drug and alcohol addiction in Indigenous communities was a constant theme of the inquest, as was intergenerational trauma. Darryl Burns, who had standing at the inquest and lost his sister in the attacks, was reprimanded by the coroner for one of his questions that addressed intergenerational trauma. He later voiced his frustrations to Global News, saying he believed the investigation was rushed and did not address systemic issues.

Click to play video: 'Family disappointed in answers in Sask. stabbing inquest'
Family disappointed in answers in Sask. stabbing inquest

“We are turning a blind eye to the real issue. We are doing a lot of things but not addressing the real issue,” he told Global News.

“Looking forward, for my grandchildren and my great grandchildren and the ones who haven’t been born yet, the future doesn’t look very bright for them”

There was also a notable lack of Indigenous involvement in the inquest itself. Of the approximately 30 witnesses, only three were from JSCN. None of the community’s first responders were called on to give evidence.

Speaking after the conclusion of the inquest, Chelsey Stonestand, another family member with standing, said the recommendations were more than what many of them were expecting and she was hopeful they would help facilitate change.

But she was disappointed many of the witnesses weren’t able to “give an authentic answer” because they were “protecting the organizations they work for, which is completely understandable.”

“There was a lot of talk about focusing on the future … but Indigenous people can’t do that. This tragedy was deeply rooted in intergenerational trauma,” she said.

“The world is going to continue on and business is going to get back to usual, but I’m hopeful [for change].”