Eddie Head felt a deep pull toward his Saskatchewan First Nation as it was enveloped in devastation.
He had been a community leader for decades for James Smith Cree Nation and served a term as chief. But as he learned about the horrors of a stabbing rampage over the Labour Day weekend last year, an even more difficult connection became clear — the killer was his nephew.
“I felt obligated to come back home,” Head says from the band office in the community northeast of Saskatoon.
Chaos descended on the tight-knit community almost a year ago as Myles Sanderson, 32, moved from home to home, busting down doors and attacking people. Death and injury followed Sanderson as he stole vehicles or fled on foot, with no one knowing exactly where he would head next.
Eleven people were killed and 17 were injured on the First Nation and in the nearby village of Weldon.
Sanderson died in police custody a few days later.
The killer may be gone but the loss and fear he caused remains. Fresh flowers are still regularly placed at the grave sites of those who died and a memorial on the side of the road is a constant reminder.
“Some days I still wake up in the morning crying,” says Brian (Buggy) Burns.
His wife, Bonnie, 48, and son Gregory, 28, were killed. Another 14-year-old son was stabbed but survived.
At night, Burns tosses and turns. You get used to sharing a bed with someone, he says, and then they are suddenly gone.
The family moved into a new, much smaller home away from where the killings happened. For a while, Burns relied on alcohol to help him sleep. But, he says, after a serious health scare, he realized he had to get sober. He couldn’t leave his surviving children without any parents.
Sometimes he thinks about leaving the First Nation because there are too many horrific memories. For now, he’s just taking it day by day.
“It’s tough to bury your wife and son at the same time,” Burns says. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it.”
Herbert Burns’ sister, Gloria Lydia Burns, 61, died trying to assist Brian Burns’ wife, who called for help that morning.
There is still a strong sense of community, but it has been damaged, he says.
“People tend to have lost trust in each other.”
Some people left and never returned, says Victor Sanderson. His sister, Joyce Burns, was seriously injured in the attack and his brother-in-law, Earl Burns Sr., was killed.
“You can’t just push this under the carpet,” Sanderson says from Debden, Sask.
“This is the product of intergenerational trauma.”
The reserve sits near the banks of the North Saskatchewan River, a historic gathering place for many Indigenous communities. Settlers set their sights on the fertile lands that transition from grassland to boreal forest and built Fort à la Corne, which became an important trading post.
The First Nation received its name from the original chief who signed Treaty 6 in 1876. But with settlers came colonization, generations of broken promises and destroyed families.
The community’s children were forced to attend residential schools, including the Anglican-run Gordon’s Indian Residential School that was open until 1996.
The spiritual leader of the Anglican Church, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, visited James Smith Cree Nation just over three months before the mass killing to apologize for “building hell and putting children into it.”
A handful of children run around a playground at a school across the main road on an August morning as Head walks to the community’s security centre in the band office parking lot.
Head, who was working in construction at the time of the stabbings, was approached afterward to become the community’s justice and policing director.
The community of about 1,900 people now has 28 full-time security officers. Training has been important, Head says, especially for responding to trauma, mental health issues and suicide.
In the past year, the First Nation’s security team has built up its relationship with the closest RCMP detachment in Melfort, 40 kilometres southeast, and Head says the average response time for calls is now 30 minutes. The morning of the stabbings on Sept. 4, 2022, it took nearly 40 minutes after the first 911 call for officers to arrive.
Head says when officers need to respond, security can assist to make sure they have the right information.
“We, the membership and the security people, know each other.”
The long-term plan is to have self-administered policing, but Head says it’s at least five years away. The community has to navigate a legislative and financial maze to make it happen.
In the meantime, Mike Marion is tasked with trying to provide mental health supports. The First Nation’s health director says every single person there has been affected.
“One of the victims was one of our colleagues that worked here, so it really impacted our staff,” Marion says from a boardroom in the James Smith Health Clinic.
Immediately after the attacks, the clinic organized for a crisis support therapist to go to each crime scene. In the days and months after, they brought in more therapists and traditional healing services.
Marion says there’s been an increase in people looking for mental health and addictions counselling. In response, addiction recovery meetings were held biweekly, a men’s support group was created and staff were given more training.
The First Nation also arranged to take affected families to Alberta for equine therapy and recently hosted the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations’ annual traditional health gathering.
Chief Wally Burns says some remain fearful a year later.
“Back in the day, we never used to lock our doors.”
The chief says there’s an urgency to educating politicians and all orders of government on the community’s need for self-administered policing.
“There’s a lot more people that want to get trained and make sure our nation doesn’t go into that area once again.”