Exclusive: James Smith Cree Nation killer’s partner shares story of brutality, survival and hope

Vanessa Burns
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
WATCH: Ex-partner of Saskatchewan mass murderer shares story of abuse, survival, and hope (WARNING: This story contains disturbing details. Viewer discretion is advised.) – Nov 1, 2022

Vanessa Burns’s body is a roadmap of 15 years of horrific domestic violence.

There’s the stab mark on her left shoulder, left by a knife during a drunken fight in 2010. There’s the bite mark in the crook of her right arm, a crescent-shaped ridgeline of puncture wounds. Small marks cover her body.

A faint, red scar underneath her chin and a cluster of raised bumps on her forehead are the most recent additions — lasting reminders of the weekend her former partner, Myles Sanderson, became one of the worst mass murderers in Canada’s history.

Burns says Sanderson left her with two black eyes and bumps all over her forehead two days before he committed the murders. Supplied

On Sept. 4, Sanderson murdered 11 people, including his brother Damien, and injured 18 during an early morning killing spree in the small Saskatchewan communities of James Smith Cree Nation and Weldon.

In the weeks since, Burns has endured false rumours about her role in the attacks, which took the life of her father, Earl, and left her mother, Joyce, gravely injured. The speculation was borne from the fact that she was one of the last people to spend time with Sanderson before the murders.

Read more: EXCLUSIVE: Saskatchewan stabbing suspect’s wife says she called RCMP 24 hours before murders

Read next: Exclusive: Widow’s 911 call before James Smith Cree Nation murders reveals prior violence

Until now, she’s brushed those rumours off. But she’s had enough. She was a victim for 15 years and now wants to take her power back. She speaks with a sense of strength and purpose — she hopes her story might help others in violent relationships get out.

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She doesn’t shy away from any part of her story, no matter how compromising or degrading. She admits she was helping Sanderson sell cocaine at JSCN the weekend of the murders. She lived with him when it was against his parole conditions. She went back to him after he tried to murder her parents seven years ago. She knows her children deserved better.

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

Sept. 4 was the culmination of a life of debauchery and inexplicable violence for Sanderson.

In total, when he died at age 32, he’d been charged with 125 crimes, according to the 47 cases filed against him in the province’s criminal courts. Those include two attempted murders and 18 assaults.

Seven of those assaults were on 36-year-old Burns. But she admits there were many more that she didn’t report or withdrew charges on — possibly more than 100.

Sitting in her brother’s home at JSCN, Burns is stoic as she recounts, for the first time, 15 years of manipulation, intimidation and horrific violence. Her children — the eldest is 13, the youngest is four — play loudly in the background, and are able to fill in the blanks in anecdotes of assaults if she falters. They remember the dates and locations their dad was arrested. They know the locations of all of their grandmother’s stab wounds.

Valentine’s Day cards Sanderson wrote Burns from prison, along with a picture of him and his children and a letter Burns wrote him but never sent. Ashleigh Stewart

Spread out on the table are the letters and Valentine’s cards that Sanderson sent her while he was in prison. There is also one of her old diaries — proof, she says, of the toxic nature of a relationship she wished she could have pulled herself out of. Interspersed between Taylor Swift’s lyrics and “Vanessa loves Myles” doodles, is a tortured account of false hope and emotional manipulation.

“Every day, I just want to give up and run away. It’s so overwhelming. But my mom, she needs us,” Burns says, staring intently at the floor.

“I wish it would’ve never happened. I wish I never associated with him.”

'I thought that was love'

Located northwest of Melfort, JSCN is a small community of about 1,900 on-reserve members. Many share one of a handful of last names — Sanderson, Burns and Head are the most common.

It is here that Vanessa, a Burns, met Myles, a Sanderson, when he was 17 and she was 21.

It is here that Burns has returned after a seven-year absence, in the wake of his violent death.

Burns sits at the kitchen table, dressed down in a black hoodie and leggings, a patch of slime smeared across her chest — deposited there moments earlier by her four-year-old daughter Milah — as her children plead and cry for her attention. She speaks casually about years of violent abuse, giggling nervously every so often as if completely disassociated.

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Myles Sanderson, pictured with three of his children. Supplied

When Milah spots a picture of Sanderson on the table, she exclaims, “My Dad!” and lifts it to her face to kiss it. Burns watches on, indifferent to the moment. Over the course of our two hours of talking, she breaks down only once, briefly, recalling the death of her father.

Burns remembers meeting Sanderson at her house on Christmas Day, 2007. He had come to her house to see his older brother, who Burns’ sister was dating at the time. She thought he was tall and handsome.

They started hanging out, and after a few weeks were in a relationship, despite Burns being well aware that he was troubled.

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

Sanderson and his siblings had grown up around physical abuse, domestic violence and instability, his parole board records say. After his parents split up, he moved between his mother’s and father’s homes for most of his adolescence. He began smoking marijuana at age 12 and in his teens fathered a child, with whom he no longer had contact.

None of this deterred Burns. Neither did warnings from Sanderson’s own family — from his mother and siblings — to stay away.

Read more: RCMP confirm Global News reports on James Smith Cree Nation suspect Damien Sanderson

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“It was loneliness. I was always alone. I isolated myself, and I never made friends,” she says.

“I was falling in love with him, and I thought that was love. It was so stupid.”

Their relationship was stable at first, she says. Sanderson told her about his volatile family life, saying he’d grown up around addiction, domestic violence, alcohol and parties. He said children and teachers bullied him for not being smart.

Earl Burns was an army veteran and a pillar of the James Smith Cree Nation community. Supplied

She could relate. Her own father, Earl, was an alcoholic, and his dependency prompted her own struggles with alcohol.

“Addiction is thick in our blood,” a line in her diary reads.

Earl was a residential school survivor and lived with lingering trauma, Burns says. He was “hard” on his children. But he never laid a hand on his wife. That was a major difference between her and Sanderson’s upbringings.

She had only been with Sanderson a couple of months before he first assaulted her. They were at her parent’s home, and he threw her on her bed and started choking her. She managed to wriggle free, relatively unharmed but says she was too shocked to call the police.

But her father had seen it happen. He and Sanderson got into a physical fight about it. That set the stage for the rest of their relationship, one where Earl detested Sanderson and tried to protect his family at all costs.

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

But it was difficult when his daughter wouldn’t listen.

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Things started to get “really ugly,” the following year, Burns says.

That was the first time Sanderson was arrested for assaulting her. He also racked up convictions for attacking a man at JSCN with a knife, walking naked in a park near a Saskatoon elementary school, and was described as “running from police.”

Their relationship grew volatile. Myles would play “mind games” with Burns, accusing her of being with other men. He’d call her a “whore.” He’d body-shame her. He cheated on her and left her for other women.

James Smith Cree Nation
Myles Sanderson, pictured with his first-born child, Dallon. Supplied

And then, she got pregnant. Sanderson’s reaction was muted.

“He said, ‘Right on,'” Burns says.

“I just wasn’t ready since I knew he wasn’t ready for a child either. I couldn’t be happy about it.”

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Their first child, Dallon, was born in 2009.

Three more children followed between 2011 and 2013. They broke up often. His attempts to rekindle their relationship were usually preceded by pleas to see his children and to be a family again.

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

The criminal charges continued, as did the physical abuse. He was arrested in 2011, 2012 and 2013 for assaulting her. One time, he almost broke her jaw.

She rarely called the police because he and his family would make her feel guilty for doing so, she says. She hands over a blank, victim-impact statement sheet — a memento from one of the many times he escaped punishment.

When asked if she feared he would go too far and kill her during one of these assaults, she shakes her head sharply.

“Because he always promised to change.”

Sanderson tried to kill her parents before

The first time Burns tried to leave Sanderson, he almost murdered her parents.

It was 2015, and he had just been arrested for another domestic assault against Burns. He’d beaten her as she tried to move out, sick of his heavy drinking and feeling neglected.

He just grabs me by the hair and pulls me down. And as I was packing up my stuff, I fell down the stairs. And then he comes down, and he starts punching me in the head. He stopped punching me in the face. That’s what abusers do: they punch you in places you can’t see.

“So then he threw me down and started kicking me. And he’s trying to drag me down to the basement. I was just praying so hard. Finally, he just stops … and he just snapped out of it, and he started saying sorry to me, just kissing me and kissing my hands.”

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Burns has lasting scars under her chin from Sept. 2, two days before her partner became one of the worst mass murderers in Canadian history. Supplied

Burns left anyway, moving back into her parent’s house. Her mother, Joyce, was fed up with his behaviour and insisted her daughter charge him this time. So she did.

A week later, Sanderson had taken his children for the night and asked Burns to come over and pick them up.

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“Mum and Dad had a bad feeling, so they said they’d go instead.”

When Earl and Joyce Burns arrived, Sanderson came out of the house with his daughter Adrianna in his arms. He had a knife in his pocket.

“My mom kind of knew something was wrong, so she got out of the truck,” Burns says.

“Myles put Adrianna on the ground, and then he just started stabbing (Mom).”

Vanessa Burns, her father Earl, and her daughter, pictured on a fishing trip before Earl was murdered. Supplied

When Earl leapt to his wife’s defence, Sanderson turned on him. The fight ended when Sanderson’s mother rushed out of the house to protect him.

Earl was left with several stab wounds that needed stitches. Joyce had superficial cuts.

Sanderson was charged with attempted murder, aggravated assault and weapons possession. Along with charges for breaching his probation for failing to comply with a 2014 judge’s order not to consume alcohol and to “keep the peace and be of good behaviour,” he was sentenced to two years, less a day, in prison.

Alone with five kids, Burns relied on support from Damien, Sanderson’s brother, and his wife, Skye. For a time, the four of them had been close. Damien was the godfather to two of Burns and Sanderson’s children.

Damien and Skye Sanderson celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary days before the Saskatchewan stabbings. Supplied

Living at home and fearing she’d become a burden on her family, Burns went to a women’s shelter in Regina. But all it did was make her miss Sanderson.

“It made me feel lonely. Like I wanted to go back to him. Lonely, like, why am I even here?”

After a month in the shelter, Burns moved with her four kids to Saskatoon to be close to her sister.

All the while, she called and wrote letters to the man who was serving time for almost killing her parents.

Sanderson's violent behaviour ramps up

Upon his release in 2017, Sanderson’s violence only escalated.

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In July, Burns and Sanderson broke up after she discovered he was texting other women. But that didn’t stop him from showing up at her home, where he chased her cousins through the house, punched a hole in the wall, smashed Burns’ television and threw a cement block through the window of her cousin’s vehicle. She says she called the police but they hung up on her because she was “too hysterical.” Her cousin called again, but by the time police arrived, Sanderson was gone.

In the following months, he got into an argument with an employee at a First Nations band store, tried to pick a fight with him, and then threatened to murder him and burn down his parents’ house, according to parole documents.

Click to play video: 'Saskatchewan stabbing suspect’s parole records reveal long history of violence'
Saskatchewan stabbing suspect’s parole records reveal long history of violence

In November, Sanderson stood watch outside a Subway in Melfort, armed with a sawed-off shotgun, as an accomplice robbed the store. Six months later, while drinking at an undisclosed residence, he assaulted two men with a fork and then attacked another man who was walking nearby, until he lost consciousness in a ditch.

Sanderson was also rarely sober, according to both Burns and his parole records, despite repeatedly being ordered by judges to undergo counselling for anger, drugs and alcohol. He was caught breaching his release conditions 65 times over a 14-year span, his court files show.

Valentine’s Day cards Myles Sanderson sent Vanessa Burns, his ex-partner, during his time in prison. Ashleigh Stewart

In April 2018, Burns gave birth to her and Sanderson’s last child, Milah.

A month later, he was arrested again for assaulting Burns. In June, police were called to Burns’ house looking for Sanderson, parole board documents show. He was spotted trying to sneak out a back window. After telling police they would have to shoot him before he was taken into custody, Sanderson resisted arrest and then attacked an officer.

Together with the other crimes he committed around that time, his sentence amounted to more than four years.

Burns still kept in touch with him throughout his sentence. He told her he would change.

'Progress not perfection'

As a window into their relationship, Burns offers up diaries from late 2019 to early 2022. She has long been a meticulous journal keeper but says she burned many of them because she didn’t want to be reminded of the things she wrote about Sanderson.

The entries are in endless conflict with each other. But the way the emotional and physical abuse affected her is a central theme.

“I changed. I stopped being me,” she wrote.

A letter Sanderson wrote Burns from prison during his final incarceration, along with his funeral card and a victim impact statement that Burns never filled out. Ashleigh Stewart

She makes excuses for him, blaming his family for his actions. Blaming herself for his cheating. Blaming herself for being a bad parent. But she was often hopeful, musing over going back to school, “making something of myself,” starting a restaurant or becoming a parole officer or youth worker. Entire pages are dedicated to motivational quotes. “Believe in what you want so much that it has no choice but to materialize,” one says. “It’s like I’m homesick for a place that doesn’t exist,” reads another.

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She speaks of trying to “break this cycle.”

But she is bogged down with money issues, an empty fridge, depression, suicidal thoughts and parenting alone.

Vanessa Burns’ diary entries for the past three years are dominated by her struggles being in a relationship with Myles Sanderson. Supplied

“Am I that desperate to be loved, to think I can change someone? Do I give up or try harder?” she writes.

Meanwhile, Sanderson was preying on her vulnerability.

A letter from Saskatchewan Penitentiary, dated Jan. 21, 2021, reads: “I feel more confident and joy in myself to be the man I always wanted to be and searching for. I look forward to coming HOME and starting fresh on a new chapter and beginning.”

He wrote about his hopes for the family’s future and excitement at seeing his children. He signs it with two phrases in quotation marks: “Progress not perfection. Believe in yourself.” He addresses the envelope to “Vanessa Sanderson.”

This is the only letter from him that Burns has kept. This and two Valentine’s Day cards he sent her from prison in 2020 and 2021.

“I love you and miss you lots. I do look forward to spending my life with you,” he writes in one.

A page from Vanessa Burns’ diary from 2022 shows the struggle she faced trying to leave Myles Sanderson. Supplied

She responded to most of the letters, but never with complete honesty. She didn’t tell him how much he was hurting her. She believed that he would change and desperately wanted her family together again.

In one letter, she came clean about the way the relationship had affected her and why she wanted to move on.

“You broke me and I don’t think I am ever going to be the same.”

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“You never gave me a chance,” she wrote. “You could have let me go if you knew you weren’t good enough for me. You had me fooled.”

But she never sent it. It sits folded up amongst her mementos.

'Plotting revenge'

When Sanderson was granted statutory release in August 2021, he was not allowed to contact Burns, who had been staying with her family in Melfort. Regardless, she moved to Saskatoon to be with him.

But after a couple of months, things went south again. Burns wrote in her diary that Sanderson had kicked her out for confronting him about talking to other women and “losing it” on his children. The kids had become scared of him and did not like them being together.

Burns called Sanderson’s parole office, confiding that she was living with him, his anger issues had returned, and that she “hated lying.”

He was directed to turn himself into the police, which he did a couple of hours later. His statutory release was cancelled, and he returned to prison.

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

But by early November, she was missing him and regretted turning him in. On Dec. 30, a diary entry reads that Sanderson was “guilt-tripping” her and she felt like he was “plotting revenge” against her.

In February, the Parole Board of Canada ruled Sanderson did not pose a risk to the community and freeing him would “contribute to the protection of society” by facilitating his reintegration. He was released again.

In a letter, he warned her that she wasn’t going to put him in jail anymore or have any power over him. She apologized for calling his parole officer.

“The last time he got out everything was just a mess. Then he started treating me bad again.”

After his release, she didn’t notice anything particularly different about him. He was “talking a little crazy,” she says, but he had just been diagnosed as bipolar and she’d thought he might be schizophrenic.

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

He sometimes spoke of wanting to kill himself. If he ever did it, he said he’d take a fentanyl pill.

“He saw things that I didn’t see. He was paranoid, he thought people were following us all the time.”

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In early May, the couple broke up again. Burns had caught Sanderson cheating on her and found out he was fathering a child with someone else.

He was also at that point listed by the Saskatchewan Crime Stoppers as “unlawfully at large” after he stopped communicating with his parole officer.

Sanderson left home on May 23, angry with her. That was the last time she saw him until August, when he returned in the lead-up to the murders.

The murders unfold

For two months, Burns wrote at length about moving on. She vowed never to go back.

But on Aug. 17, Sanderson showed up at her house in Saskatoon when she was sleeping. He wanted a ride to JSCN to sell cocaine.

“He said, ‘This is the only way I can make money.’ So I understood that. Because he couldn’t get a job because he was at large. It kind of made me feel guilty about that, too,” she recalls.

“So I said, ‘Well, I’ll do this for you one time, just one time only.’ And he’s, like, ‘And then I’m going to turn myself in.’”

Instead, Burns spent two weeks driving Sanderson back and forth between Saskatoon and JSCN to help him sell the coke. But not only was she his chauffeur, she was also contacting JSCN’s addicts and letting them know they were selling.

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James Smith Cree Nation, a small community located north-west of Melfort, Saskatchewan. Cole Burston/AFP via Getty Images

When asked, looking back, how she feels about that decision now, she shakes her head.

“I feel stupid. Really, really stupid,” she says, staring at the floor. “He was kind of manipulating me again, saying that he wants to get back with me, that this is his home. This is his family. That’s how he got me.”

Two days before the murders, on Sept. 2, Burns and Sanderson were still a team, selling drugs at JSCN over the weekend. It was early in the morning. They’d just dropped a male friend off at a bar. Burns was driving, Sanderson was in the passenger seat.

Canadian law enforcement personnel rush to  James Smith Cree First Nation in Saskatchewan, Canada. Robert Bumsted/AP via Canadian Press

After the friend got out of the car, Sanderson accused her of being involved with him. He said he knew she’d had men over at the house and called her a whore.

“I kind of punched him first because he pissed me off. That’s how much anger and rage I have inside from him doing that to me for so many years. And then he’s like, ‘Oh, you want to fight?’ Then he started punching me. He wouldn’t stop punching me. And I didn’t hit him back. And he rolled up the scale he was using for cocaine and started stabbing me with it,” she recalls.

“Oh my God. I was trying to get to Damien’s house as fast as I can … I knew if I went to Damien’s, I’d have help there.”

She pulled into Damien and Skye’s driveway, where Sanderson climbed on top of her and continued the attack. He’d pulled her jacket over her head so she couldn’t see.

“I started honking the horn hysterically. The kids heard, and they got everybody out of bed. I opened my door, and he just had his leg on my throat, just trying to kill me… So I pushed my way out of there and just slid out. I just went tumbling in the ditch, and I just sat there, and I just couldn’t move because I was so f—–g sore, and my head was aching. Then he kicked me a few times while I was on the ground.”

Sanderson got in the car and attempted to run Burns over before his mother, who lived with Damien and Skye, came out to try to protect her. Damien put Burns in his own car and tried to calm Sanderson down. Skye watched from the house.

The scar underneath her chin and bumps on her forehead are the latest of many scars Burns says were inflicted by Sanderson. Supplied

While Damien took his brother to calm down, Burns decided to go back to Saskatoon. She had two black eyes and lumps all over her head. She didn’t want her children, or her parents, to see her like that.

“I didn’t want them to worry. Because every time I go through this, they get hurt. It hurts them to see me beat up,” she says.

“I was just praying to God that someone phoned the f—–g cops.”

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No one did. When asked why she didn’t call the police, she says Sanderson smashed her cellphone and by the time she got back to Saskatoon, she thought he would have escaped.

“He always gets away. So I gave up.”

She spent the next day in sunglasses and a hat. She collected four of her children from her mother. Her eldest, Dallon, stayed at JSCN for a hockey tournament.

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By that time, Skye had begun writing on Snapchat that Damien and Myles were drunk and high and were driving around JSCN wreaking havoc. Burns doesn’t know much about the relationship between the brothers but echoes Skye’s opinion that Myles manipulated his brother.

Burns worried the brothers would come after her.

“So at home in Saskatoon, I had a plan. I put all my stuff by my backdoor, my keys, my shoes, whatever, my bank cards. I was sleeping in the living room. And I knew if he came into my house, he would go upstairs because that’s where we slept. And I was going to sneak out real quiet.”

She fell asleep. Meanwhile, 200 kilometres away, the father of her children was embarking on a killing spree.

'He looked like a zombie'

Burns woke at about 8:30 a.m. to a text from her 13-year-old son, Dallon.

“His text was: ‘My dad tried to kill us,’ and that’s when I was like, f–k. I just phoned him right away. I said, ‘What happened?!’ He started telling me everything.

I felt shocked. I was scared. … I went down, got my kids up right away like, what if he’s coming for us? I told them to ‘get up and let’s get the heck out of here.’”

At this point in the interview, Burns becomes more animated and her narration more emotional, as if she is reliving the experience. She stares ahead at a point on the wall, transfixed.

Joyce Burns hugs one of her granddaughters as she recovers in hospital. Supplied

Dallon had told Burns that Sanderson attacked her parents. In disbelief, she called her mother’s phone, and when her sister answered, she broke down in tears. She was sitting in a car with her children in a Tim Horton’s parking lot. She didn’t know where else to go.

Joyce would later tell her that Sanderson had come over at about 6 a.m., and she’d opened the door, thinking it was Barry Sanderson, her brother. But it was Myles Sanderson, who was driving a stolen car, and she slammed the door in his face.

“But Myles busted in and was slashing Mum,” Burns says, recounting her mother’s story, “Then he went for my Dad, who was by the stairs. Dallon heard someone falling down the stairs, but we don’t know who it was.

“Mum went running to the bedroom and locked the door, and Myles busted in and started stabbing her on her bed.

“Mom said he had a cigarette in his mouth and he just looked like a zombie.”

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Joyce was stabbed in the neck, face and stomach, but the last wound was the most vicious. To inflict more damage, Sanderson had twisted the knife.

James Smith Cree Nation
Vanessa is now committed to helping her mother, Joyce, recover from her injuries. Supplied

During that time, her father Earl was gravely injured, but he had made it outside and had gotten into his bus, Burns says. Joyce said she believed Earl had been hoping to lure Sanderson out of the house and to chase him down. But his bus was later found rolled to a stop in a ditch, a few hundred metres down the road. Barry found Earl inside, barely alive, and sat with him as he died.

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“We just sat there crying when we heard about Dad,” Burns says, her voice breaking. She covers her face and sobs — her first display of emotion during the whole interview.

“We just wanted to go there and see him and we couldn’t.”

Earl and Joyce Burns. DPi

With Sanderson on the loose and fears for her own safety, Burns took her children to a cousin’s house.

“He was trying to kill me a couple of days ago. So how did I know if he was going to come and finish me off?

“We sat there reading every update, every death. We were just in shock. My anxiety was so high that day, I was just freaking out. People were asking me where I was, and I just told them I was safe … just in case Myles was going to come.”

She says she was not offered police protection until the next day when she asked for it. Her house remained unguarded.

A map showing the key locations of the manhunt for Myles Sanderson. Global News

RCMP declined to answer any questions about Burns’ account.

Little is known about Sanderson’s movements after he fled JSCN in a Nissan Rogue. The Rogue was stolen from a JSCN member, Burns says.

But she believes he came for her.

Two days after the spree, she went to her Saskatoon home to get some belongings and found a condom on her door and her mail scattered around her living room. A witness later told her that they had seen him in the area. She’d asked what he was wearing. It matched.

Regina police Chief Evan Bray, left, speaks while RCMP Assistant Commissioner Rhonda Blackmore, right, looks on during a press conference in Regina on Sept. 5, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Michael Bell. MLB

RCMP refused to confirm if the Saskatoon sighting was credible, saying tips from the public were still being analyzed.

Spooked, Burns relocated to Prince Albert where Joyce was fighting for her life.

“She had four operations. She was on life support. It was so scary. I honestly thought I was going to lose her. It would’ve made me more angry.”

'Relieved' at his death

On Sept. 7, after four days at large, police shunted Sanderson’s car off the road near Rosthern, Sask. He died in custody shortly afterwards.

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“I was a little sad at first. I felt sorry for him. Like it was very confusing.

“But then I was relieved. He was just a coward. He took the coward’s way out, he didn’t want to man up to what he did.”

Burns assumes he took a fentanyl pill, as he’d told her he would before. RCMP refused to comment on his cause of death.

Police and investigators after Sanderson’s stolen car was shunted off the road. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Kelly Geraldine Malone. DPi

In the ensuing weeks, Burns says she has learned a lot about her former partner through media reports. She didn’t know the extent of his criminal history or his drug use. She didn’t know for certain he’d wanted to kill her until she read it in a Global News article.

“That was pretty shocking. It was very hurtful … I was the mother of his kids. Like, what did I ever do to you? Like, I never did nothing to that guy, nothing but love him. And I was good to him.”

Read more: Amid manhunt, a Saskatchewan bowling team reflects on loss and a terrifying close call with Myles Sanderson

Read next: 2 kids killed, man charged with murder after bus crashes into Montreal-area daycare

She’d largely stayed away from JSCN until recently, scared of what people would say to her. She’s been fighting with her brother, whom she says blames her for what happened. Many still think she’s a drug dealer. Most people, however, have been compassionate: she lost her father.

Earl was a pillar of the community. He drove the school’s bus and his status as a veteran was much celebrated — despite the fact that, according to Joyce, he only made it through two years of training before he dropped out. He didn’t like how they treated First Nations people. After his death, a cross was erected where his body was found. In the weeks since, that cross has grown into a shrine, full of wreaths and other flower arrangements.

A cross erected for Earl Burns at James Smith Cree Nation has become a shrine in the weeks since the murders. Ashleigh Stewart

Burns went to Myles’s funeral. She doesn’t know who organized it, but says only about 20 people showed up. Inside his funeral program, she is listed only as the mother of the children he had left to mourn. She has collected some of the other victim’s funeral programs — her father’s, Damien’s, Christian Head’s (Skye’s father), Robert Sanderson’s. On Damien’s card, she’s handwritten in the name of one of her children under the list of his godchildren.

That Myles killed his own brother is one of the most shocking facts of all that she’s had to overcome.

'Focus. Believe. Hope'

On a Friday evening in late October, Skye and Burns sit side-by-side in a busy restaurant in Prince Albert. Burns is staying in town with her mother in a hotel for hospital appointments. Skye came to meet me for dinner while I was in town. Burns was invited but hadn’t committed to attending. She walked in with Skye without warning — after weeks of ignoring all that had been said about her, she’s ready to tell her story.

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Skye and Burns remain close. They both lost their fathers in the attack, as well as their partners. They look to each other for reassurance as they speak and giggle nervously about having to support each other because of “those boys.” They could be recounting their husbands’ failure to do chores around the house, rather than them both being implicated in a mass murder.

Darryl Burns, brother of victim Gloria Burns, embraces Skye Sanderson during a press conference at James Smith Cree Nation, Sask., on Thursday, September 8, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Heywood Yu. The Canadian Press

They still don’t know why Sanderson did what he did, but they don’t necessarily want to know. Burns says Sanderson was a “vengeful” person and some of his victims were targeted for wronging him in the past. She is too scared to go back to Saskatoon, in case any of Sanderson’s accomplices are waiting for her.

Burns speaks about her ex-partner with a sense of detachment, giggling nervously whenever she says something negative about him and quickly qualifying it with, ”Just kidding.” Skye is more subdued; Damien was finally exonerated from his role as a suspect after she spoke out about him in a Global News article in September.

“Today is my day; take back my mind. Quit the past, quit certain people. Make better choices.”

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Two days later, as the first flurries of snow of the season fall on the region, Burns returns to JSCN with her mother. The roads are quieter here now. The ceremonial tents have been taken down. The RCMP are no longer patrolling. The sweat lodge and healers have moved from the school to the more private location of the culture grounds.

The sweat lodges and healers have moved to James Smith Cree Nation’s culture grounds. Ashleigh Stewart

Burns has returned for her first sweat in years. Joyce moves slowly behind her with her walker, embraced by everyone who sees her. There is a sense of homecoming.

Back at her brother’s house, Burns says she isn’t sure what she sees for her future. She echoes several statements made years before in her diary: she wants to focus on herself. Maybe she will go back to school. She’ll focus on her children.

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Her eight-year-old daughter, Mariah Carey Sanderson, interjects, saying that if she wants to focus on her children then she should let her have the ice cream she asked for 20 minutes ago. Everybody laughs, but Vanessa’s smile doesn’t reach her eyes.

James Smith Cree Nation
Joyce spent 39 days in hospital after Sanderson attacked her in her home. Pictured: the day she was discharged and returned to James Smith. Supplied

Her children seem stressed, but she doesn’t know how to help them. They miss their grandfather. Mariah Carey yells that she hates her dad. Burns worries that when they go back to school for the first time since the murders, they’ll be bullied.

She wants something positive to come out of all of this. She’s thinking about going to work in a domestic violence shelter for women.

It harkens back to the final entry from her 2020 diary. It read: “Today is my day; take back my mind. Quit the past, quit certain people. Make better choices. Take care of myself. Focus. Believe. Hope.”

If you or someone you know has been a victim of intimate partner violence or is involved in an abusive situation, please visit the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime for help. They are also reachable toll-free at 1-877-232-2610.