Saskatchewan stabbings: James Smith Cree Nation finds solace in grief as they bury their dead

Prince Albert Grand Council Grand Chief Brian Hardlotte speaks at a press conference about the mass stabbings in Saskatchewan last week. (Heywood Yu/The Canadian Press via AP).

The yellow crime scene tape still hangs from the front doors of several homes at James Smith Cree Nation (JSCN). There are still pools of dried blood on the ground, marking the site where beloved community members were brutally murdered.

But despite lingering reminders of the mass stabbings that left 11 dead and 18 injured almost two weeks ago, on Sept. 4, 2022, the small Saskatchewan community is focused only on forgiveness and moving forward as they continue to bury their dead.

“We have to forgive. How are we going to get better if we don’t forgive?” Chief Wally Burns tells Global News in an exclusive interview.

“Holding on to anger is a sickness. We need to talk about it, deal with it and expose it. If we tackle this as a community, we’ll get over this.”

James Smith Cree Nation Chief Wally Burns speaks during a press conference last week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Heywood Yu.

JSCN’s population swelled this week as well-wishers arrived from across the country to pay their respects. Some have links to the community, some have none. Cars with licence plates from as far afield as New Brunswick and Ontario have overrun the once-quiet gravel roads, as people travel from service to service, paying tribute to victim after victim.

Global News was invited to JSCN this week by the family of Gloria Lydia Burns, to observe her services and funeral. Gloria was an addictions counsellor who died when she responded to a crisis call from her friend Bonnie Goodvoice-Burns in the early hours of Sept. 4.

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The four-day manhunt for the man suspected of carrying out the attacks, Myles Sanderson, ended on Sept 7, when he was apprehended but later died in police custody. His brother Damien Sanderson, who is also a suspect, was earlier found dead on JSCN land.

Click to play video: 'Saskatchewan manhunt ends with death of suspect Myles Sanderson'
Saskatchewan manhunt ends with death of suspect Myles Sanderson

Over the course of several days immersed in the community, Global News observed people laugh, cry and rally around one another despite their own grief and trauma. A central theme emerged from leaders to help lead their members through — the theme of resilience.

“Resilience means walking through anger, walking through pain, walking through grief,” Gloria’s brother, Gerald Whitehead, told hundreds of mourners at her funeral on Tuesday.

“Use your support system. Going to your local pub and seeing your drug dealer is not a support system.”

James Smith Cree Nation members console each other during a press conference last week. Ashleigh Stewart

Eradicating drugs and community dealers has also become a central focus of JSCN’s leadership. The accused, Myles Sanderson, had a long history of drug and alcohol abuse, according to his hefty court file, and it is believed to have played a role in the murders.

Chief Burns has vowed to act on a community-wide crackdown. He has also asked the government to step up and provide the tools they need to rehabilitate members as well as provide tribal policing and long-term mental health support for the victims’ families.

“The whole world is looking at James Smith, wondering what we are going to do,” Chief Burns says.

“We never wished for this to happen. But I hope it’s a wake-up call.”

A community opens its doors

Exactly one week after the murders, on a sweltering Sunday afternoon, hundreds of people crammed into a large tent on the grounds of JSCN’s Bernard Constant Community School.

Two fishermen had travelled from more than 500 km away, from Reindeer Lake in northern Saskatchewan, to mourn alongside the community. They had 450 kg of fish in tow.

The community fish fry brought people together to laugh, cry and share memories, welcoming people from near and far — including Global News — to share in their grief. When we tried to politely decline as we aren’t community members, Tyler Burns, Gloria’s adopted son, replied: “That’s not how we see it.”

Fishermen from Reindeer Lake arrived with 400kg of fish for the stricken community. Ashleigh Stewart

In a community of little more than 1,900 people, everyone has a story to share about a loved one killed in one of Canada’s worst mass murders in recent memory. The community is so small that many share one of a handful of last names — with Sanderson, Burns and Head being among the most common.

But, unlike in nearby towns where the murders have become hushed topics to discuss at restaurant tables, JSCN members do not sit around attempting to dissect what occurred that morning. The actual stabbings themselves barely register a mention in day-to-day conversations or eulogies.

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Instead, members share positive memories of the dead. Myles’s name is rarely uttered. Damien, on the other hand, is often remembered as a positive, family-oriented man who was easily influenced by his brother. His role in the murders is disputed — many believe he tried to stop Myles.

Click to play video: 'Families, criminal files reveal new details about SK mass stabbing suspects'
Families, criminal files reveal new details about SK mass stabbing suspects

At the local petrol station, which doubles as a meeting place for the community, those in line to buy food and fuel ask after people they haven’t seen in years. Decades gone by are discussed beside the ice cream freezer.

There are three main focal points in the village right now, centred around the locations of large, hastily erected white tents — one is at the school and the other two on private properties. This is where caskets remain until they’re buried, with most being brought to the school, one after another. A band of travelling singers rotate between each location.

Nearby, in a small, two-storey house, Sandra Head and her family have been busy making ribbon skirts and shirts for funerals. They’ve made 12 skirts in four days, working day and night. The house is full of women, smoking and laughing, trying to keep their spirits high.

Sandra Head, middle, and her family, made 12 ribbon skirts in four days for funeral ceremonies. Ashleigh Stewart

The group of men tending to the sacred fire at the school pass the time by exchanging barbs; chiding one for the amount of food he’s eaten over the past few days, and another for slacking on the workload.

“Man, there’s a lot of cops around for a feast,” one mutters, nodding to the heavy RCMP presence that remains. One RCMP officer is stationed at the fish fry’s food table, doling out corn to hungry attendees.

The laughter and celebrations carry over into the services for victims. But it’s underlined by a sombre message.

An RCMP officer mans the food station at a community fish fry at James Smith Cree Nation. Ashleigh Stewart

“Time is against us for the next couple of days,” Rev. Tracy Sanderson told mourners at Gloria’s wake on Sunday evening, as she rushed from site to site. According to Cree tradition, a body is buried after four days, when the spirit is free to join its ancestors. All the while, a sacred fire must burn continuously, tended to by members of the community.

At Gloria’s funeral on Tuesday, however, the tragedy was addressed head-on.

“There’s a lot of anger over what happened and that is normal,” Gerald Whitehead told a crowd overflowing from a large tent on the front lawn of his and Gloria’s brother, Ivor Wayne Burns. The previous day, Christian Head and Lana Head were buried. Many of the mourners had attended those funerals, too.

Light-hearted stories were shared about Gloria’s wit and personality. Chief Burns recalled her introducing herself to him as a “queen” and wondered how that was going to go in heaven, with the recent passing of Queen Elizabeth. Partway through the ceremony, several people pointed to the sky in wonder, where four eagles circled. The birds represent strength, courage and honour, a mourner told us.

Gloria Lydia Burns’ funeral overflowed with mourners who had travelled from near and far to pay their respects. Ashleigh Stewart

But amid the laughter, Whitehead was there to deliver a serious message. He asked for the community to address its drug abuse problems directly.

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“You can live without alcohol and drugs. But it’s your personal choice. Drugs are only going to take you so far,” Whitehead said.

“Honour Gloria, give up drugs and alcohol… and live harmoniously with one another.”

Another one of Gloria’s brothers, Darryl Burns, who drove to the JSCN boundary the day after the murders to speak to media in defiance of a media ban, echoed those sentiments. At the outset of his speech, he asked mourners to hug the person next to them and tell them: “I’m glad to see you today.”

Ivor Wayne Burns watches his sister’s funeral from his truck, after he tested positive for Covid-19 the day before. Ashleigh Stewart

In the background, Ivor Wayne watched on from behind a mask, in his white truck parked outside the service. He’d tested positive for COVID-19 the day before and was in isolation.

Introduced to Minister of Indigenous Services Patty Hajdu from afar, Ivor Wayne welcomed her warmly, saying, “Everyone is welcome. Because we all need to heal together.”

Chief Burns had extended the invitation to Hajdu to attend the funeral and to meet with her afterwards, alongside other community leaders.

It is here, he says, that the community made several pleas for ongoing help from the government.

Chief Burns requests ongoing support

In a diner in downtown Saskatoon on Thursday, the toll of the past two weeks is etched across Chief Burns’ face.

He admits he is tired. He’d arrived from a vigil in Humboldt at midnight and was then up again at 5 a.m. to drop someone at the airport. After this, he says, he’s off to meetings, then to Prince Albert, then to JSCN, then back to Saskatoon to attend a wake for his good friend Earl Burns, who was killed in the stabbings and whose wife is fighting for her life in hospital.

Burns’s sister-in-law, Carol Burns, and her son Thomas Burns were also among the victims.

“I feel the stress in my bones. I’m broken. I’m hurt,” Chief Burns says.

Read more: Saskatchewan stabbings: ‘Broken’ father grieves for murdered wife and son

He is thankful for the world’s outpouring of grief and the donations that have streamed in. JSCN was the subject of Queen Elizabeth’s final statement last Wednesday, when she expressed sympathy for those affected by the stabbings.

Chief Burns cherishes that. He has been invited to her funeral, but politely declined the invitation.

“I want to go, but I need to be with my people right now,” he says.

A cross has been erected for Earl Burns, near where his body was found. Ashleigh Stewart

Many questions remain for him over the killings on the territory he has presided over as chief for 18 years. He does not know if he will ever get the answers. But for now, he believes there needs to be an inquiry into why Myles Sanderson was back in the community in the first place.

Sanderson’s hefty criminal file recounts almost two decades of crime, as well as drug and alcohol abuse, and associations with gang members, pimps and drug dealers.

His most recent convictions were for assault, assault with a weapon, assaulting a police officer, uttering threats, mischief and robbery. The Parole Board of Canada released Sanderson on Feb. 1, saying that he would “not present an undue risk” to society.

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“Why was this guy released when he was dangerous?” Chief Burns asks, incredulously. He did not know Myles well, but knew Damien, and did not consider him to be a threat.

Click to play video: 'Saskatchewan stabbings: Motive may ‘forever’ only be known to Myles Sanderson, RCMP say'
Saskatchewan stabbings: Motive may ‘forever’ only be known to Myles Sanderson, RCMP say

Chief Burns was in Ontario at a sweat lodge when the murders occurred. When he heard, he booked the first return plane ticket he could. The scene was “chaos,” he says.

Prior to the murders, Chief Burns says he was already trying to crack down on drugs and alcohol in his community. He had a list of known drug dealers and was figuring out how to ask them to leave.

“We’re saying to them that we don’t want you in our community any more, please take your kids and leave,” he says.

“We have to protect the elders and the youth and the world around us.”

Fishermen from Reindeer Lake arrived with 400kg of fish for the stricken community. Ashleigh Stewart

The next step is asking for government help and intervention. Chief Burns says he’s asked for Ottawa’s support in a number of areas — tribal policing is the most important.

“Our response times are bad. We want our own security guards patrolling the reserve,” he says.

They have also requested a dedicated drug treatment centre, more funding for the National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program (he says the government provides some funding, but not enough) as well as money for mental health support, long-term therapists and new housing for traumatized residents who had murders take place in their own homes.

That trauma is going to take a long time to get over, he says. But he repeats a phrase he mentioned at Gloria’s funeral: “Life goes on.”

He wants his community to grieve, but then to move ahead. That’s what he’s trying to do.

“I keep going to the sweat lodge. I pray for the community. I pray for forgiveness,” he says.

“I’ve already forgiven [Myles and Damien].”

That forgiveness is surprisingly widespread in the community.

James Smith forgives murderers

In an interview after his sister’s funeral, Darryl Burns is visibly emotional, his face drawn. But he wants to speak, he says, because he doesn’t want the spotlight to dim on the issues the murders have brought to light. He doesn’t want his sister to have died in vain.

Darryl made international headlines last Thursday during a press conference at James Smith Cree Nation, when he embraced Skye Sanderson, Damien’s wife, and told her he forgave her.

Darryl, left, and Ivor Wayne Burns, sitting around the sacred fire for their sister, Gloria. Ashleigh Stewart

He stands by those comments, and always will, saying that the forgiveness he has offered is now simply up to Skye to accept. He’s also glad for the exalted position he has gained by being so vocal about JSCN’s issues.

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The day after the murders, he quit his job as an addictions counsellor, accusing the leadership of not doing enough to address the drug problems. He doesn’t know if he will go back.

Whatever happens, he wants to try to use his newfound status wisely.

Click to play video: 'James Smith Cree Nation shares grief, calls for change after mass killing'
James Smith Cree Nation shares grief, calls for change after mass killing

“I’ve been put in a position I never thought I would be put in,” Darryl says.

“I’ve been saying all of these things for a long time but now I’ve been given this stage to keep saying it all.”

He is proud of the way his community, and his family, have rallied behind this message.

Read more: Lessons from Nova Scotia killing spree helped RCMP respond to Saskatchewan stabbings

At Gloria’s funeral, her adopted son, Tyler Burns, told Global News that he was ready to “follow her legacy.”

“She’s got very big shoes to fill,” he said. “But I am mentally ready.”

Darryl says it’s up to all of them to continue Gloria’s legacy. Gloria had battled her own addictions before she sobered up and became an addictions counsellor in order to help others, he says.

That mantle was now left for them to carry.

“I woke up this morning and I’m thinking about this Myles guy and I was thinking about my spirituality. In my belief, there is no such thing as hell. But Myles has gone on to the spirit world where our ancestors are and they’re deciding what’s happening to him,” Darryl says, poignantly.

“Gloria would have wanted us to forgive. And to move on.”