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James Smith Cree Nation heroes awarded Queen’s Platinum Jubilee medals for bravery, service

Sixteen members of James Smith Cree Nation who sprang into action last September when a stabbing rampage left 11 dead and 18 wounded on their home in south-central Saskatchewan have been awarded the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee medal for their bravery and public service.

“I would do anything for my community. I always help my community, it’s only natural. We take care of each other,” said medal recipient Denise Whitehead. 

“I just about broke into tears because I wasn’t expecting it. It’s kind of embarrassing for me because I like to be in the back and push from the back. The public eye is not where I like to be.”

The 16 who received the medals on Thursday afternoon are among 7,000 individuals to receive the award from the province to honour the late Queen Elizabeth II’s 70 years on the throne of England.

“It was unbelievable. It’s something I would never want to see again,” said Whitehead, adding the “horrific scenes” she saw that day remain etched in her memory,

A woman standing next to a man with many flags behind them.
Denise Whitehead says she was taken by surprise to be awarded for her public service by Russ Mirasty, the lieutenant governor of Saskatchewan. (Travis Reddaway/CBC)

And while the community will never be the same, she said, it must work toward a “new normal.”

“It is an honour not just for me but an honour for the whole community and all our staff,” said Rey Lindain, the nurse manager in the community. 

Lindain says his phone rang non-stop early on Sept. 4, 2022. When he learned multiple casualties were involved, Lindain co-ordinated and facilitated help from outside the community. 

“One of our staff was killed but we were able to respond to the needs of the community as the first responders,” he said. “We are still recuperating and still dealing with the tragedy. This medal will hopefully acknowledge all the hardships.”

He said mental health supports are still needed in their community and other First Nations. 

A bald spectacled man clad in a suit.
Rey Lindain says the medal it is an honor not just for himself but the entire community. (Travis Reddaway/CBC)

Chief Robert Head, Chief Calvin Sanderson, Dinah Marion and Dwayne Seib were presented medals for their public service. Mike Marion was awarded for providing health care.

Cindy Ghostkeeper, Anthony Penner and Carrie Marion were awarded for their social services. Other recipients included Wilfred Sanderson and Theresa Sanderson for their faith services, Rhonda Sanderson for her volunteer service and Garth Sanderson for his protection services.

Russ Mirasty, the lieutenant governor of Saskatchewan, said the medal presentations, which the province began last August, were halted due to the Sept. 4 incident and then the Queen’s death.

Mirasty told the small crowd that the Queen’s last public message before she died was to share condolences with James Smith First Nation. He believes it’s fitting to give out these medals in the community in her memory.

“You are positive role models for your neighbours and your community,” Mirasty said, thanking those who stepped up to help the injured, the shaken and the grieving.

“A medal doesn’t change the past or prevent pain but it’s a tangible symbol of gratitude felt by your community and your province.”

Silver medals hung to ribbons kept in cases are displayed on a table.
Russ Mirasty, the lieutenant governor of Saskatchewan, awarded members of James Smith Cree Nation with the Queen’s platinum jubilee medals. He says a medal cannot change the past or prevent pain but it symbolizes gratitude. (Trevor Bothorel/CBC)

He said such medals, as a part of Royal celebrations, have been awarded federally for 125 years. 

“This is the first time in the Canadian history that a Royal celebration has been commemorated with a provincial medal,” Mirasty said.

“Healing is a long time coming. It’s every little thing we do that can shed some light on the community members who helped each other. This will help.”

‘It’s going to take a while to where we once were’

Chief Wally Burns of James Smith Cree Nation says he was humbled by the award.

“I want to thank our first responders and social service people — without them it wouldn’t have been possible. I’m very thankful to our people who stepped up after the tragedy,” he said, noting that STARS ambulance, RCMP and EMTs deserve a medal for saving lives.

Burns says the community still needs support as it inches closer to closure and healing.

“We are working hard with the families themselves doing all this healing. It’s going to take a while to take us back to where we once were, but we will get there,” medal recipient Terry Sanderson said.

A man in blue ceremonial wear is speaking into a CBC microphone.
Terry Sanderson, one of the award recipients, says he looked after the elders during the tragedy but his work is still not done. (Travis Reddaway/CBC)

Sanderson looked after the elders during the tragedy, but he says his work is still not done.

“There is still lot of trauma and healing needed, but there’s a lot of forgiveness, too. We have a lot of addiction and mental health problems going on,” he said.

“We want to build a safe community. We are working on the commitments that the government made to us. We are survivors from residential school systems to other hardships, but the hope is still there.”

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