By Dave Baxter
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Manitoba’s First Nations leaders are offering their support and condolences now that a manhunt is over, two suspects are dead, and a Saskatchewan First Nation has been left to pick up the pieces after the worst mass killing in that province’s history.
And they say last weekend’s bloodshed shows how much work needs to be done to help communities deal with a drug epidemic they say continues to plague First Nations all over this country.
“The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) and Assembly of First
Nations (AFN) support the leadership in this time of mourning and trauma, and offer their sincere condolences,” the two organizations said in a joint media release.
On Wednesday, RCMP in Saskatchewan announced that 32-year-old Myles Sanderson had been arrested and later died while in police custody, bringing to an end a four-day manhunt that began on Sunday when Sanderson and his brother Damien are believed to have killed 10 people and injured 19 more in a stabbing spree on the James Smith Cree Nation, and in the nearby village of Weldon, northeast of Saskatoon.
The Saskatchewan Coroner’s Service said victims from the James Smith Cree Nation have been identified as Thomas Burns, 23; Carol Burns, 46; Gregory Burns, 28; Lydia Gloria Burns, 61; Bonnie Burns, 48; Earl Burns, 66; Lana Head, 49; Christian Head, 54; and Robert Sanderson, 49, while one person from Weldon, 78-year-old Wesley Patterson was also killed in the rampage.
Both suspects are now also dead, and at the time of the murders, Myles Sanderson had a lengthy criminal history, and when he was released from custody back in February, he had been assessed as a high risk for spousal violence, and to reoffend with violence.
He also admitted during a parole hearing before being released that his use of drugs and alcohol can make him “lose my mind,” and that it had been a key factor in his criminal violence and criminal record in the past.
AMC Deputy Grand Chief Cornell McLean said Sunday’s “drug fuelled rampage” makes it clear an addictions and drug epidemic in First Nations communities must be dealt with by all levels of government in this country, and dealt with immediately before more drug-fuelled violence occurs.
“Governments need to start listening to First Nations and flow immediate funding for rehabilitation services, funding support for community wellness, and following the lead of First Nations in how to build safer and healthier communities where First Nations-developed, and governed healing programs can prevent drug-fueled rampages such as this,” McLean said.
“We are all affected by the immense violence this community has faced.”
And First Nations communities in Manitoba all also no strangers to addictions issues, as a study by the University of Manitoba released in 2019 showed First Nations people in Manitoba were twice as likely to be prescribed opioids than all other Manitobans, and four times more likely to have multiple prescriptions of opioids.
In 2019, an emergency resolution passed by First Nations Chiefs in this province recognized a “severe opioid addiction problem on Manitoba First Nations.”
McLean said that both AMC and AFN are now calling on governments to immediately “prioritize the drug epidemic” on First Nations.
He said he also now feels for the people in Saskatchewan who lost their lives, who lost loved ones, and for those who spent days not knowing if they were even safe in their own homes.
“It would be nothing short of traumatic to be trapped in your community in fear of this man,” McLean said.
“As First Nations, we always come together in times of need to help one another in mourning and grief.
“It is a heartbreak felt across Turtle Island and all Nations.”
AFN Regional Chief for Manitoba Cindy Woodhouse said she hopes healing can now begin in the Saskatchewan communities hit by the violence and the loss of life over the weekend.
“I extend my heartfelt condolences to the families who lost loved ones, and to all the people affected by these senseless acts of violence,” Woodhouse said. “First Nations in Manitoba hold all of you in our thoughts and prayers.
“May we all come together in the coming days and months to work for as long as we need for security, healing, and peace.”
-Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.