While Saskatchewan’s top Mountie says policing hasn’t dramatically changed since last year’s mass stabbing on a First Nation, what has is the RCMP’s relationship with the community.
Assistant Commissioner Rhonda Blackmore said James Smith Cree Nation’s new security team has become an extra set of eyes and ears, working closely with RCMP should officers need to be called in.
The 28-member security team was established months after Myles Sanderson, 32, moved from one home to another and attacked people over the Labour Day weekend last year. Eleven people were killed and 17 injured on the First Nation and in the nearby village of Weldon.
“The security group at James Smith has been a very positive interaction for our members out of Melfort detachment,” Blackmore said in a recent interview. “It’s about having that additional level of information whose purpose is to make sure that the community is safe.”
This weekend, James Smith Cree Nation marks the anniversary of the killings, offering families a space to grieve.
For families, loss and fear continue to persist. Some have left and haven’t returned, while others work to rebuild a strong sense of community.
Blackmore said she continues to be in awe of the First Nation’s resiliency but is aware of the lingering trauma that’s affected those who live there and first responders.
She said officers have noticed more concerns around the need for security, pointing to a case in July where a man on the First Nation was threatening people with a machete. A Saskatchewan RCMP officer sustained minor injuries during the arrest.
“That brings up some pretty traumatic memories for them,” Blackmore said. “So, we’re doing our best to make sure we’re reassuring them through patrols we’re doing.”
Eddie Head, who’s the community’s justice and policing director, said the team has built a relationship with the detachment in Melfort, 40 kilometres southeast.
He said average response times are 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.
The community continues to work toward establishing its own police service, but Head said that might be at least five years away.
Blackmore said the security team can offer intelligence RCMP may not have.
“In some cases, people may have mistrust of the police and may not want to provide that (information), but they may be more willing to share that information with a local individual who’s in that security role.”
Sanderson, who had a violent past, was on parole and had been unlawfully at large in May 2022 before the stabbings. A national board created by the Parole Board of Canada and Correctional Service of Canada has been investigating Sanderson’s release and is expected to outline recommendations in a report this fall.
Blackmore said RCMP has a process where officers can determine who on warrant poses the highest risk to communities.
“Having said that, you can’t accurately predict what someone is going to do or their behaviour,” she said. “It could shift dramatically. And we’ve seen that in some cases, where even a homicide occurs and in this individual, it’s completely unexpected.”
She added officers are also trying to arrest those who have been charged with serious crimes.
“As best we can, we look at those risk factors and prioritize those.”
Blackmore said the recent expansion of RCMP’s Warrant Enforcement Suppression Team in Prince Albert and a new Crime Reduction Team in North Battleford, located 135 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon, have been helpful.
She said one of the biggest lessons she’s learned is the importance of being prepared for the worst.
Two weeks before last year’s stabbings, she said, RCMP ran a “tabletop scenario” of what they would do if there was a mass-causality event. It helped everyone know their roles and responsibilities.
“That type of preparation goes a long way and is time well spent.”
Blackmore said a team from Alberta RCMP has completed an independent officer review into how Mounties responded to the stabbings.
The review, which includes recommendations on what could be improved, is to be released in 2024 after the coroner completes two inquests in January. One is to focus on the deaths of the victims and the other is to examine Sanderson’s death in police custody.
“God forbid something like that happens again,” Blackmore said. “We certainly want to be making sure that if there are lessons learned there, that we’re taking that information and applying it.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 3, 2023.
— With files from Kelly Geraldine Malone in Saskatoon
Jeremy Simes, The Canadian Press