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Searching for solace a year after tragedy in James Smith Cree Nation

September 4, 2023

Members of First Nation look for ways to heal 1 year after mass stabbings in Saskatchewan

A man in a red T-shirt holds a toddler with pigtails next to him on a wooden bench. They're in a grandstand, watching a horse race.
Darryl Burns and his two-year-old granddaughter, Parker, watch chariot races in Prince Albert, Sask.(Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

CBC News: Rickety wheels slice through the undisturbed gravel of the race track in Prince Albert, Sask. A man in a cowboy hat declares that the first chariot race will start soon. After donning helmets, vests and a need for adrenaline, the drivers guide their horses into position. A horn blares and the crowd cheers as hooves beat the ground, producing plumes of dust that hang in the air long after the horses rush past.

Darryl Burns calmly sits on a nearby aluminum bench, his eyes tracking every rotation of the wheels on his grandson’s cart.

Burns has competed in races like this for 50 years. The competition, family, equestrian passion — they all provide him brief solace in this moment. “It takes my mind off all the turmoil,” says the 64-year-old.

One year after Canada’s worst mass stabbing, Burns and other members of James Smith Cree Nation say addictions, violence, grief and trauma continue to pervade their community. But slowly, some are finding ways to feel safe again — for themselves and the next generation.

James Smith Cree Nation marks 1 year since mass stabbing

WATCH | One year after mass killings, James Smith Cree Nation reflects: Duration 2:39

One year after Canada’s worst mass stabbing, members of the James Smith Cree Nation say addictions, violence, grief and trauma continue to be a problem in their community. Those who lost loved ones say they are honouring their memories and working to make their First Nation safe.

Click on the following link to watch the video:

A morning of terror

On Sept. 4, 2022, 32-year-old Myles Sanderson unleashed uncontrollable violence on central Saskatchewan. Most of it happened in his own community of James Smith Cree Nation, which has some 3,400 members. About 1,900 of them live on reserve approximately 200 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon.

Early that morning, Sanderson and his brother, Damien Sanderson, were seen drinking excessively before breaking into a home in James Smith. Sanderson attacked a man with scissors, but Damien broke it up. The brothers left, then got into a fight. Damien’s body was found days later in a nearby bush.

The first 911 call came after the first attack at 5:40 a.m. Two RCMP officers arrived in the First Nation less than 40 minutes later. Sanderson, however, was faster — swiftly moving from house to house, stabbing people in their own homes.

Eventually, he fled the First Nation in a stolen car and killed a man in the nearby village of Weldon, Sask.

Then, less than three hours after his first attack, Sanderson disappeared. He evaded police for days, and the ensuing manhunt captivated the world.

On Sept. 7, RCMP spotted Sanderson in a stolen truck on a highway near Rosthern, Sask., about 130 kilometres southwest of James Smith. Officers chased him, forced his vehicle off the road into a ditch, and arrested him. Shortly after, RCMP say Sanderson went into medical distress and died in police custody.

There would be no answers from the man who killed 11 people and hurt 17 others.

The faces of 11 people, with names and ages when they died, are all in one image.
Eleven people were killed in the Sept. 4, 2022 stabbings. Most were from James Smith Cree Nation. One man was from Weldon, Sask. (CBC)
Finding the tools to heal

As an addictions worker in James Smith, Darryl Burns wants to see programs tailored to his community, which he says has never experienced something like this. “We’ve never had someone stab 11 members of basically their own family. We need to do as many different things as we can,” he says before pausing. 

“We may not heal them all, but if we have a good enough start, our people are going to be healing our people because we’ll have all the tools.”

Burns lost his sister, Lydia Gloria Burns — known as Gloria — in the attacks. Gloria, a 61-year-old addictions counsellor, was part of a local first-responder team. A mother who’d been stabbed called her for help.

A smiling woman with a black and grey braid holds a microphone at a wedding in a gymnasium.
Lydia Gloria Burns gives a speech at her niece’s wedding years ago. The 61-year-old, who was part of a first-responder team, died while attending a call for help during the stabbing attacks in James Smith Cree Nation. (Submitted by Darryl Burns)

The woman’s adult son was already dead. One of her younger sons was hurt, along with another boy. While Gloria was helping the woman, Sanderson returned and killed them both.

One year after his sister’s senseless death, Burns says he’d tell her, “We’re trying to move on.” “I’d let her know how much impact she made on every one of our lives. All the brothers, the nephews and nieces. All the grandchildren. How big of a hole she left in our lives.”

Complex trauma, complex grief

Health officials with James Smith Cree Nation say there are eight therapists assigned to work with the victims’ families — two therapists were already on staff before the stabbings. The community health clinic added six others after the attacks, using funding from the federal government.

“This is complex trauma at its finest, and it has all these intricacies,” says Glenda Watson, a contracted therapist from Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation who has worked with James Smith families since the week of the stabbings.

A woman in a denim jacket smiles at the camera. Behind her, several teepees are set up. The dry grass is a combination of green and yellow, with a cloudless sky above.
Glenda Watson is one of eight therapists working with the families of victims in James Smith Cree Nation. She works across northern and central Saskatchewan and speaks at conferences like this one in Duck Lake, Sask. (Sam Samson/CBC)

She says the incident robbed survivors of any sense of safety. Many struggled to sleep, for example, because they were always on edge. “If the body doesn’t feel safe, how are they going to feel safe talking about it?” 

Watson says somatic therapy — paying attention to and addressing how the body expresses trauma — really helped. “That’s literally all they were trying to do was learn to function again.”

The Saskatchewan Coroners Service promised mental health support during two inquests in the new year. An inquest into the events of Sept. 4 is scheduled for January in Melfort, Sask. An inquest into Sanderson’s death in police custody was pushed to February or March.

Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) has spent $9.3 million to help James Smith after the attacks. That money has gone to therapists, funerals, renovations to damaged homes, new housing and social programs. It’s separate from the $42.5 million the federal government has promised for long-term resources and a new wellness centre.

Michael Marion, James Smith’s health director, says the community plans on using $3.2 million of the long-term funding for next year’s programming, travelling to check out health centres at other First Nations, and holding open houses so residents can have their say.

“It takes time to come up with a good program,” Marion says. “We only get one chance at this. We have to make sure we do it right and get the community involved.”

Watson warns that healing will be a lifelong process. “It’s no different than residential school — we are still living with the complex trauma, complex grief stemming from that experience,” she says. “This is not something that has an easy answer or an easy resolve. We are a people dealing with a lot.”

Barriers to help

But Justine Head says her brother didn’t get any help from the band after surviving the stabbings. “He doesn’t trust anybody anymore,” she says. Keenan Head was treated in hospital for 20 stab wounds and a punctured lung. When he was released, his sister says he stayed in a hotel. Since then, he’s been homeless.

Health officials with James Smith say they worked with nearby community partners in the aftermath to check on survivors in other cities, but Head says no one visited her brother.

A woman wearing a hoodie and sunglasses on top of her head looks off to the left. In the foreground is a woman wearing a blue jacket.
Justine Head describes how she wants help for her brother, Keenan Head, who was injured in the stabbings, but survived. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

“They should have gone out to see him instead of expecting him to come to them,” she says. “To go see what he really needed and wanted.” Like Sanderson, Head says her brother lives with addictions and has a criminal record — he’s been convicted of assault in the past.

Briefly this summer, Head was on the run and considered “armed and dangerous” by police. James Smith Cree Nation was locked down until Head was arrested.

Head says her brother was ostracized after the attacks because of his past, creating a barrier between him and the help he needs.  “When the tragedy happened, he wanted to change his ways. He so badly wanted to change his ways, but yet there are still people looking down on him,” she says. “Why can’t they see a person trying to change?”

Ceremonies, counselling and sobriety

During a humid July afternoon in Duck Lake, Sask., it’s hard to tell what’s rumbling in the air — the drums or the thunder. Hundreds of people are in a field watching a Horse Dance — a traditional Plains Cree ceremony. Four horses and their riders gallop around a teepee. 

Brian (Buggy) Burns is a lead holder — taking the reins as the animals pause. “I feel relieved,” he says after the ceremony ends. “Like the stress is gone, the grieving is gone a little bit.”

A man with a serious expression in a baseball hat, wearing a red button-up shirt looks at the camera. It's late afternoon, and the sunlight hits the side of his face.
Brian (Buggy) Burns says traditional ceremonies, counselling and sobriety have helped him be there for his sons after they lost their mom and oldest brother. (Sam Samson/CBC)

Buggy was away at a rodeo when Sanderson snuck into his home on Sept. 4 and attacked his wife, Bonnie Goodvoice Burns, his adult son, Gregory (Jonesy) Burns, as well as two boys, one of whom is another of Buggy’s sons.

Bonnie was the one who called Gloria for help. They died together. Gregory was also killed, but the boys survived.

Buggy says ceremony — and frequent counselling — helps him be there for his family. He also quit drinking this summer after a bleeding ulcer put him in the hospital and gave him a scare. “I didn’t want to leave my boys. They’ve already lost so much. I put the bottle away ever since,” he says. 

“It’s emotionally tough, but you know, you gotta battle through.”

WATCH | The changes in James Smith Cree Nation: Duration 2:49

Darryl Burns shares what changes have happened in James Smith Cree Nation

Darryl Burns, who lost his sister in the Sept. 4 attacks, shares his message for his community on year after the mass stabbing.

A shift in the community

As painful as the last year has been, Darryl Burns says he’s seen a shift in James Smith Cree Nation as younger people embrace their identities and histories with ceremony. “We’ve had hundreds of years of oppression. If we can start making our children proud of themselves, that’s going to be huge for our future,” he says.

“So, no matter how hopeless it seems, no matter how hard the task is, we have to keep going.”

As he watches his grandson fly down the track, Parker, Darryl’s two-year-old granddaughter, waddles up to him. He picks her up and points to where his family’s chariot cuts through the gravel path. “Look at Nathan gaining! Look!” A smile spreads across his face.

Though Nathan crosses the finish line last, Darryl’s smile doesn’t fade. He envelopes Parker’s tiny hands in his and claps them together. “Yay!” he coos at the toddler, her pigtails bouncing as the two clap their hands as one.

A chuckwagon with "James Smith Cree Nation" painted on the side sits in the foreground. Darryl Burns and his family are in the background, setting up horses for upcoming races.
Darryl Burns has raced in chariot and chuckwagon races for 50 years. He’s shared his passion with his family, going to exhibitions in the summer. (Sam Samson/CBC)

Sam Samson, Journalist

Sam Samson is a senior reporter for CBC News, based in Regina. She’s a multimedia journalist who has also worked for CBC in Winnipeg and Sudbury. You can get in touch on Twitter @CBCSamSamson or email