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Experts, family say many questions remain unanswered in James Smith Cree Nation tragedy

RCMP gave a detailed summary of the James Smith Cree Nation mass stabbing this week, but some family members and observers say many questions remain unanswered.

For nearly three hours Thursday at a presentation in Melfort, Sask., RCMP revealed many new details about the tragedy that left 11 people dead and 17 wounded at the James Smith Cree Nation and neighbouring village of Weldon last fall. A similar presentation was made to James Smith community members Wednesday.

RCMP described how brothers Damien and Myles Sanderson made a plan, how Myles Sanderson killed his brother when he had an apparent change of heart, and how Myles then went to multiple homes on foot or in stolen vehicles before he was captured four days later.

Some of the victims’ relatives say they’re glad the RCMP is sharing this information. But Daryl Burns, whose sister was one of the people killed, said he’ll never know the answer to his biggest question: Why did Myles do it?

“I mean, the one that knows that is deceased now. So there’s questions we have that are never going to be answered probably, because the only person that will know them is gone,” Burns said.

John Hansen, a professor of Indigenous justice and criminology at the University of Saskatchewan wonders why the RCMP summary of events at James Smith Cree Nation focused so heavily on the offenders and not on the police response.
John Hansen, a professor of Indigenous justice and criminology at the University of Saskatchewan, wonders why the RCMP summary of events at James Smith Cree Nation focused so heavily on the offenders and not on the police response. (Submitted by John Hansen)

Burns and others say they also have other questions. RCMP officers declined to answer questions about their own actions that day. They say they responded within 38 minutes of the first call, but gave little information about their actions in those next hours and days. 

RCMP said they can only release certain details because they don’t want to jeopardize an upcoming coroner’s inquest, scheduled for next January.

“I think more transparency in the justice system would serve them well. I really don’t know why they didn’t talk about themselves at all,” said John Hansen, a professor of Indigenous justice and criminology at the University of Saskatchewan.

“I think it should be more balanced. They could have explained more about how they handled the whole thing. Perhaps their whole purpose was just to focus on the offenders.”

Wally Burns is the Chief of James Smith Cree Nation.
Chief Wally Burns of James Smith Cree Nation said true accountability will only come when his community can administer its own justice system and police force. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

In a written statement, James Smith Chief Wally Burns thanked RCMP for the information, but he said there will only be full accountability when the First Nation is able to take control of its own justice system.

“I know we need to develop our own police force. I am not stopping until we get boots on the ground,” wrote Burns. “The true answer to overcoming these barriers to safety and protection is self-administered policing on our First Nation.”

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