Rob Gillies and Robert Bumsted
JAMES SMITH CREE FIRST NATION, Saskatchewan — Fears ran high Tuesday on an Indigenous reserve in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan after police warned that the suspect in a deadly stabbing rampage over the weekend might be nearby and officers surrounded a house with guns drawn.
Police later sent out an alert that it was a false alarm and they had determined the suspect was not in the community but people remained nervous with his whereabouts unknown and a province-wide alert still in effect.
People on the James Smith Cree First Nation reserve were earlier told to stay inside. An Associated Press reporter saw people running and screaming as police shut down roads.
The fugitive’s brother and fellow suspect, Damien Sanderson was found dead Monday near the stabbing sites. Police are investigating whether Myles Sanderson killed his brother. The brothers are accused of killing 10 people and wounding 18.
Leaders of the James Smith Cree Nation, where most of the stabbing attacks took place, blamed the killings on drug and alcohol abuse plaguing the community, which they said was a legacy of the colonization of Indigenous people.
James Smith Cree Nation resident Darryl Burns and his brother, Ivor Wayne Burns, said their sister, Gloria Lydia Burns, was a first responder who was killed while responding to a call. Burns said his 62-year-old sister was on a crisis response team.
“She went on a call to a house and she got caught up in the violence,” he said. “She was there to help. She was a hero.”
He blamed drugs and pointed to colonization for the rampant drug and alcohol use on reserves.
“We had a murder suicide here three years ago. My granddaughter and her boyfriend. Last year we had a double homicide. Now this year we have 10 more that have passed away and all because of drugs and alcohol,” Darryl Burns said.
Ivor Wayne Burns also blamed drugs for his sister’s death and said the suspect brothers should not be hated.
“We have to forgive them boys,” he said. “When you are doing hard drugs, when you are doing coke, and when you are doing heroin and crystal meth and those things, you are incapable of feeling. You stab somebody and you think it’s funny. You stab them again and you laugh.”
Blackmore said police were still determining the motive, but the chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations echoes suggestions the stabbings could be drug-related.
“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 membership to create safer and healthier communities for our people,” said Chief Bobby Cameron.
Blackmore said the criminal record of Myles Sanderson dates back years and includes violence.
He was released from prison in August 2021, but then his release was suspended that November because he had lied about his ex-spouse and children living with him. At a hearing in February, the board canceled the suspension, while adding conditions to limit and monitor contact with the woman and his children.
Public Safety Minister Mendicino said he’s been told by the parole board there will be an investigation into its assessment of Myles Sanderson and his subsequent release.
“I want to know the reasons behind the decision and I want to know if any mistakes were made during the process,” Mendicino said. “It has to be an independent review.”
”I’m extremely concerned with what occurred here,” he said.
The stabbing attack was among the deadliest mass killings in Canada, where such crimes are less common than in the United States. The deadliest gun rampage in Canadian history happened in 2020, when a man disguised as a police officer shot people in their homes and set fires across the province of Nova Scotia, killing 22 people. In 2019, a man used a van to kill 10 pedestrians in Toronto.
Deadly mass stabbings are rarer than mass shootings, but have happened around the world. In 2014, 29 people were slashed and stabbed to death at a train station in China’s southwestern city of Kunming. In 2016, a mass stabbing at a facility for the mentally disabled in Sagamihara, Japan, left 19 people dead. A year later, three men killed eight people in a vehicle and stabbing attack at London Bridge.
Police in Saskatchewan got their first call about a stabbing at 5:40 a.m. on Sunday, and within minutes heard about several more. In all, dead or wounded people were found at 13 different locations on the sparsely populated reserve and in the town, Blackmore said. James Smith Cree Nation is about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from Weldon.
Weldon residents have identified one of the dead as Wes Petterson, a retired widower who made his coffee every morning at the senior center. He loved gardening, picking berries, canning, and making jam and cakes, recalled William Works, 47, and his mother, Sharon Works, 64.
“He would give you the shirt off his back if he could,” William Works said, describing his neighbor as a “gentle old fellow” and “community first.”
Sharon Works was baffled: “I don’t understand why they would target someone like him anyway, because he was just a poor, helpless little man, 100 pounds soaking wet. And he could hardly breathe because he had asthma and emphysema and everybody cared about him because that’s the way he was. He cared about everybody else. And they cared about him.”
Evan Bray, the police chief of provincial capital city of Regina, has been saying as recently as Monday that police thought Sanderson was in Regina, but said Tuesday they've received information that is leading them to believe that he may no longer be in the city.
“Although we don’t know his whereabouts we are still looking not only in the city of Regina but expanded into the province as well," Bray said.
Gillies reported from Toronto.