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James Smith Cree Nation grappling with what to do with public donations after 2022 attacks

Inside James Smith Cree Nation’s council chambers, you will find the words “Remember Me” spelled out in dancing figures painted on an orange wall.

The words have taken on a whole new meaning since violence and death visited the central Saskatchewan community last September. 

They remind Chief Wally Burns of the 11 lives lost and the 17 others forever changed by their injuries in the First Nation and the nearby village of Weldon, which sit about 200 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon.

The massacre that took place in the early hours of Sept. 4, 2022, was carried out by 32-year-old community member Myles Sanderson, who died in RCMP custody shortly after being arrested following an intense four-day search.

The RCMP Major Crimes Unit will present a preliminary timeline of the mass casualty homicides on Thursday in Melfort, Sask. The presentation is expected to last four hours, followed by a 45-minute Q&A session.

Burns said the tight-knit community of about 1,100 people is still reeling from the attacks.

On top of the physical and psychological after-effects, he said James Smith’s leadership is grappling with what to do with more than half a million dollars’ worth of public donations sent following the tragedy, including $125,836 raised in a GoFundMe campaign.

“This is all new to us,” Burns said. “We never asked for this kind of event to happen in our community, so how can we spread that [money] out evenly is a good question. It deals with mental health. It deals with all the trauma.”

Almost eight months after the worst stabbing attack in Canadian history, the majority of the money collected in donations from corporations and private citizens remains in the band’s coffers, with no plans yet on how to distribute the funds.

The welcome sign to James Smith Cree Nation, which is located about 200 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon.
The RCMP will provide an updated timeline of the Sept. 4, 2022, stabbings in James Smith Cree Nation on Thursday. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Survivors and families who lost loved ones have questions about what’s happening with the money, especially at a time when some are struggling to get by.

“We have never seen — not a paper — on who donated what, what they spent the donations on, who got what,” said Darryl Burns, a 63-year-old addictions counsellor who works at the James Smith health clinic, and is a distant relative of Chief Burns.

Darryl Burns lost his 61-year-old sister Gloria in the attacks. She was a crisis worker, and during the rampage, she had been called to one of the stabbing scenes to help.

The James Smith band covered her funeral expenses, and provided $800 grocery gift cards and $1,500 cheques to Gloria’s family members for the first few months after the tragedy, he said.

Darryl Burns is grateful for the support, but he worries about a lack of transparency. He also wants family members of the deceased to be consulted on how the donation money is used.

First Nation went into debt in aftermath of tragedy

James Smith Cree Nation is a Plains Cree community made up of three bands: Peter Chapman, Chakastaypasin and James Smith.

Chief Burns says the massacre left the chiefs and councils scrambling, and that they went into debt in the months following the violence. 

James Smith spent more than $3.5 million to pay for hotel accommodations for displaced community members, along with travel, gas, food, mental health support and funerals, according to a March 2023 financial document the band shared with CBC News. 

That forced the community to make tough choices, Burns said.

It used approximately $200,000 in public donations to pay for the bills, according to the community’s financial director. 

Indigenous Services Canada advised the community’s leadership after the massacre that it could move federal funds around internally to cover the costs of support and other associated needs until the federal department was able to get funds to the First Nation, according to a statement sent to CBC News from a federal department spokesperson. 

That allowed the community to tap into funding it received for 2022-2023. At least half of the money was used for community safety and wellness activities, according to the federal department.

But even with that assistance, the community faced a massive deficit until Ottawa provided more than $6.8 million to James Smith. 

Deborah Burns, 39, is the eldest daughter of Earl Burns Senior.
Deborah Burns, 39, wants to see her chief and council offer more support to families like hers who lost loved ones in the 2022 attacks. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Last November, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited James Smith and announced $62.5 million over six years to help the community recover and improve safety. Of that money, $42.5 million is to be spent on renovating the Sakwatamo Lodge, the community’s existing addiction treatment centre, and build a new wellness centre.

Chief Burns said it will take a few years to sort out the plans for the new centre. Right now, he said the community’s focus is on alleviating suffering.

While James Smith does not have a dedicated fund for the injured or families of the deceased, he said the band office has been helping anyone who needs assistance. 

“I thought we were making all efforts work, in regards to trying to help everyone who is reaching out,” he said.

Some survivors struggling to afford bills, groceries

Former Saskatchewan MP Rob Clarke set up the GoFundMe campaign on behalf of James Smith, but did not respond to CBC’s request for an interview.

The money now rests in a non-interest-bearing trust run by Toronto-area lawyer Robert Karrass, who represents Chief Burns.

“We’re trying to move it forward as quickly as we can,” Karrass said. 

Since funeral costs have already been paid for, Karrass said the plan is to transfer the GoFundMe donations to the James Smith health clinic for the secondary purpose of the campaign: counselling services.

The move, according to Karrass, would allow the clinic to obtain professionals to provide mental health counselling, as well as spiritual counselling from elders in the community. 

As those discussions continue, some survivors are straining to pay their bills.

Haley Sanderson, 36 (no relation to Myles Sanderson), said she couldn’t return to work at James Smith’s school after being stabbed seven times. Myles Sanderson also broke into her house and stole her daughter’s vehicle.

“I used to be very social and outgoing and everything, but I just can’t be around anyone anymore,” she said.

Earl Burns is the father of Earl Burns Senior, one of 11 lives lost in the Sept. 4, 2022 attacks in James Smith Cree Nation.
Earl Burns gives a final salute to his son Earl Burns Sr., who died protecting his family during last fall’s rampage in James Smith Cree Nation. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC News)

A couple of months ago, Deborah Burns organized a posthumous celebration on what would’ve been the 67th birthday of her father, Earl Burns Sr., who was killed on Sept. 4 protecting his family.

It was held inside a community hall in the neighbouring village of Beatty, Sask., and people from James Smith and nearby First Nations gathered under the scent of sweet grass and sage for an evening of healing and remembrance.

Deborah Burns, 39, received financial support from James Smith to rent the hall and put on the event. She said the family appreciated the help and hoped it was a signal that the band would be responding to the needs of victims and their families.

“We feel ignored,” Burns said. “We don’t feel important to our chief and council because they refuse to talk with us, and even refuse band meetings.”

The last community meeting in James Smith was sometime before the pandemic. Chief Burns told CBC News last month that he was planning to hold another one sometime this spring, but a date hasn’t been scheduled yet.

‘We have that responsibility to do right’

Karrass said he understands some community members are struggling financially, but he said his instruction for the GoFundMe donations was that they be disbursed to the entire community — not individual victims.

The campaign was originally set up for a wide range of support, including “funeral costs to hospital and family expenses to long-term rehab and counselling,” according to the GoFundMe page.

“It’s not just the families of the victims of the stabbings that are affected, it’s the whole community,” Karrass said. “While I absolutely appreciate that there are a lot of families that are experiencing a lot of hardship, these funds were not donated for the purpose of helping families make ends meet.”

Karrass said the funds will be transferred to the James Smith health clinic as soon as it signs an agreement with the band in writing and he receives the appropriate banking information. Otherwise, Karrass said the money will be sent back to GoFundMe and donors will be reimbursed. 

“If the funds cannot for some reason be applied in a way consistent with the purpose of the donations, then the goal will absolutely be to provide those funds back to the donors through GoFundMe,” Karrass said.

Darryl Burns, 63, is an addictions counsellor in James Smith Cree Nation.
Darryl Burns, 63, wants to see more transparency from James Smith Cree Nation leadership about how donations are being used. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Darryl Burns said his community needs to show accountability to the people who donated to the First Nation, because it could affect the public’s willingness to donate in similar situations in the future.

“They’re going to say, ‘Well, look at James Smith, we gave them all that money and they failed,'” he said. “We have that responsibility to do right.”

It’s a responsibility that he said also lies in honouring the 11 lives taken, the 17 others who were wounded and all community members who are still recovering.

Burns himself finds healing in spending time with his thoroughbred horses. He said they pass on signs from his sister Gloria.

“Our ancestors, because of that spiritual connection, they give us messages that they’re around and this is one of the messages,” said Burns as he stroked a braid in his horse’s black hair.

Burns said the braid just appeared.

“I’m guessing my sister was here,” he said. “She’s going to look after us.”

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