The first call came into the Royal Canadian Mountain Police dispatch at 5:40 a.m. on Sunday morning of Labor Day weekend. There was a stabbing at the James Smith Cree Nation.
Within minutes, there were many more calls. By the end of the day on Sept. 4, 10 people would be dead and at least 18 injured from a series of knife attacks and stabbings, mostly on the First Nation reserve and neighboring communities about 135 miles north of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
SUPPORT INDIGENOUS JOURNALISM. CONTRIBUTE TODAY.
By noon, the central Canadian prairie province – home to more than a million people in a territory almost as big as Texas – would be put under a state of civil emergency amid a manhunt over three provinces for two brothers suspected in the attacks.
As details of the rampage emerged, Canadians – stunned by one of the worst massacres in the nation’s history – grieved along with the First Nations communities.
“My thoughts and the thoughts of all Canadians are with those who've lost loved ones and with those who are injured,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday. “This kind of violence, or any kind of violence, has no place in our country.”
Trudeau said he had spoken with James Smith Cree Nation leadership and with Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe to assure them the Canadian government would provide support to the communities.
“The federal government will be there with the resources necessary right now in this time of crisis,” he said. “But also, we'll continue to work as partners in the weeks, months and years to come, through grieving and healing.”
By late Monday afternoon, police announced that one of the suspects, Damien Sanderson, 31, had been found stabbed to death near a house on the Cree Nation, perhaps at the hand of his brother, Myles Sanderson, 30, who remained at large but who may have been wounded.
Myles Sanderson had been sought by police since May, when he was reported to be “unlawfully at large” after failing to report to his parole officer. He has an “extensive and lengthy criminal record,” authorities said.
Support poured in to the affected communities from Indigenous leaders and others as victims were identified on social media.
The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 74 First Nations in the province, including the James Smith Cree Nation, released a statement Sunday condemning the “senseless acts of violence.”
“The FSIN executive sends our deepest condolences and offers a message of solidarity with the people of James Smith Cree Nation after the unspeakable violence that claimed the lives of innocent people. Our hearts break for all those impacted,” said FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron, who suggested that drugs were involved.
“This is the destruction we face when harmful illegal drugs invade our communities, and we demand all authorities to take direction from the chiefs and councils and their members to create safer and healthier communities for our people.”
Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald posted to Twitter, “My deepest condolences to the many families affected by today’s tragedy in James Smith Cree Nation #Saskatchewan. I’ve been in contact w/Chief Wally Burns to ensure that his community’s needs are met under their declared #State of Emergency."
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police responded to the first round of calls with a detachment from Melfort, 24 miles away from the First Nation reserve.
By 7:14 a.m. Sunday, a dangerous persons alert had been issued by the RCMP. Area residents were asked to shelter in place and not to approach suspicious persons. Citizens were asked not to disclose police locations.
By 8:01 a.m., the suspects had been identified as Damien and Myles Sanderson. Police eventually discovered more than a dozen crime scenes stretching from the Cree Nation to the nearby town of Weldon, where at least one victim was found.
The suspects were reported to have been driving a black Nissan Rogue with a Saskatchewan license plate,119 MPI. The vehicle was reported to have been seen just before noon in Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan about 200 miles south of James Smith Cree Nation.
Soon after the sighting, the Saskatchewan mounted police declared a civil emergency for the entire province, and a dangerous person alert was extended to the neighboring provinces of Manitoba and Alberta.
By early Monday, both men had been charged with first-degree murder, attempted murder and breaking and entering.
Assistant Commissioner Rhonda Blackmore, the commanding officer of the Saskatchewan RCMP, warned in a press conference Sunday that the public should be wary.
“At this stage in our investigation, we believe some of the victims have been targeted by the suspects and others have been attacked randomly,” Blackmore said. “They are considered armed and dangerous.”
She also offered her condolences to the victims and their loved ones.
“Our thoughts are with the many victims — deceased and injured — their families, friends and communities,” she said. “It's horrific what has occurred in our province today. Know that the Saskatchewan RCMP is committed and will remain committed to use every resource we have to locate and arrest these two individuals.”
She repeated the condolences at a press conference Monday.
“To those of you who have lost a loved one, our hearts ache and break for you,” she said. “I hope that you can find some comfort in the days ahead as you deal with your grief.”
The James Smith Cree Nation, north of Montana, is a signatory to Treaty 6, one of 11 numbered treaties signed between the Canadian Crown and First Nations between 1871 and 1877.
The treaty with the Plains and Woods Cree encompasses much of the Saskatchewan province as well as territory in Alberta. The reserve is composed of three communities, the James Smith Cree Nation, the Peter Chapman First Nation and Chakastaypasin First Nation.
The prairie province of Saskatchewan is home to more than a million people in a territory of about 250,000 square miles.
The James Smith Cree Nation is a small community, with a population of 3,412, of whom 1,892 live on the reserve. And it has an incredibly young demographic, with one-third of the citizens under the age of 15, according to the 2016 Aboriginal Peoples Census by Statistics Canada.
By late Monday, the manhunt continued for Myles Sanderson as residents remained on high alert. But outrage had begun to build across the nation.
Trudeau called on the nation to remain resilient.
“Tragedies like these have become all too commonplace,” he said. “We'll do what we always do in times of difficulty and anguish. We'll be there for each other, be there for our neighbors, lean on each other. Help grieve and help heal. We will continue to do that. And all Canadians will be with you in this difficult time.”
Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 today to help ICT (formerly Indian Country Today) carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.