On Thursday evening, the first funeral was held on the James Smith Cree Nation, and it was for one of two men accused of taking part in a stabbing rampage that left 12 dead, including the suspects, and 18 injured.
The funeral for 31-year-old Damien Sanderson was held in the gymnasium of the Bernard Constant Community School.
Police believe the father of two was stabbed to death by his brother Myles Sanderson, 32, who died Wednesday afternoon, shortly after being taken into RCMP custody.
In the past five days, the community has been subjected to repeated lockdown alerts, as police searched for Myles Sanderson. The leadership have asked media and members of the public to stay off the First Nation while the community mourns.
Damien Sanderson’s wake and funeral held over the past 24 hours, then, provided the first glimpse of a community in grief.
Large white event tents were erected outside four homes on the First Nation. Four more wakes began at sundown. The community has never had to deal with so many wakes and funerals held so close together, says Angela Burns, who lost a son-in-law, a cousin and her ex-husband to the violence last Sunday. She believes the funerals will allow James Smith to begin to transition from horror, shock and disbelief to mourning. To many here, it all still feels surreal.
On Wednesday evening, a wake was held for Damien Sanderson, whose body was discovered Monday amid a stand of birch trees on the outskirts of the main village site.
Before the wake began, no one in the community – least of all his family – knew what to expect. His wife, Skye, 30, told The Globe and Mail that she anticipated an empty hall. So did many others in the northern Saskatchewan community of 1,900.
Ms. Sanderson broke down when she opened the gymnasium door to a room packed with members of the shattered community, and a table spread wide with food prepared by matriarchs.
Mourners included Chief Calvin Sanderson, who spoke lovingly about the person Damien Sanderson was, and not the crimes he has been accused of committing.
Hours later, long after the community had slowly trickled out, just Ms. Sanderson and her two daughters remained. They rested on an inflatable mattress in the corner of the gym.
Damien Sanderson’s casket was wrapped in a Pendleton blanket. His Flames jersey hung above. Indigenous gospel music played quietly from a speaker.
Caskets are typically open for Cree funerals, to allow families to bid farewell to loved ones. But Damien Sanderson’s casket was closed. It’s expected that mourners will be met with closed caskets at many of the funerals that will be held, one by one, on James Smith over the next 10 days. It’s not simply concerns about wounds. There were so many bodies spread over so many crime scenes that police resources were overwhelmed in the aftermath of the attacks. Bodies were left in the hot sun, allowing decomposition to set in.
Questions abound about the role Damien Sanderson played in the tragedy. Many here firmly believe that he was killed trying to stop his brother from carrying out the attacks. They remember him as a loving dad, a gentle friend, a jokester, a family man. They also remember how he always seemed to be trying to calm his brother down, or steer him on a better path.
For others, none of that mattered. “It was such an honour to see the community united to support Damien’s family – despite what occurred,” said Carmel Crowchild, a member of the Tsuut’ina First Nation in Alberta, who knew him as a boy. “It was such a comfort to learn that Damien was still the person that I remembered him to be.”
Outside the gas station, which serves as an unofficial community hall, residents greeted one another with handshakes and long hugs, inquiring about family members who are still in hospital, or recovering from stab wounds at home.
It seems no one here has been spared. Several said they broke down Wednesday when they heard Myles Sanderson had finally been apprehended. An elderly man who was driving to Prince Albert pulled off to the shoulder and wept.
Everywhere, signs of the tragedy remain. Yellow crime tape surrounds five homes in the village site. In several places, yellow flags mark the spots where the bodies of community members were discovered. A school bus sits abandoned in a ditch alongside a gravel road outside town. Blood is spattered alongside the side of the bus, on the door, a window. School was cancelled this week. Administrators don’t know when classes might resume.
The time will come to clean up houses, rip off the police tape, repair doors kicked in during the massacre. Now, residents say, it is time to sit together at the sacred fires burning across James Smith, to sweat, to smudge, to heal, to laugh, to cry, to bury the dead.