Darryl Burns sat in the heat of a sacred fire on a blistering September day. The fire had been lit to mark the death of his sister, Gloria Burns, and as flames danced in the sun, talk turned to her killer.
“He is at peace now,” Darryl said. “He is going to cross over to the ancestors. He is not going to feel that pain, that hurt, that anger anymore.”
Darryl is an elder on the James Smith Cree Nation. When he speaks, everyone listens. The group of mourners gathered around the fire fell into silence. Snow geese honked overhead and horses whinnied. A newborn foal galloped past, testing out her legs.
“There’s no such thing as hell. He will be forgiven,” Darryl said.
But, he added, the memories of that night are going to go with Myles Sanderson. And he is going to have to spend his time caring for the ancestors now, to make amends for what he did.
Myles Sanderson showed up at his brother Damien’s house on the James Smith Cree Nation late on Friday, Sept. 2, in a rage.
At 32, Myles had a long history of violence, but it was attacks against his common-law wife and other family members that appeared most frequently in his criminal record. Domestic violence had come up again and again as a concern for those who knew him, and for those who dealt with him in the criminal justice system.
On that Friday, Myles had assaulted his wife again. He had blackened her eyes and tried to run her over with a car, and was threatening to kill her parents, according to Damien’s wife, Skye Sanderson. “Damien was trying to protect her,” Skye would later say. “Then he left. He said he was going to try to calm Myles down.”
People in the James Smith community remembered how Myles had thrown his wife down the stairs when they were still just teenagers. He had been convicted many times of assaults against her and members of her family. In 2015, he was charged with attempted murder for repeatedly stabbing her father, Earl Burns Sr., and aggravated assault for a serious attack on her mother, Joyce. Many other incidents were never reported to police.
Earlier in the summer, Myles had scared Damien so badly that Damien had barricaded Skye and their kids in a bedroom and stayed up all night, watching for Myles because he was afraid of what his brother might do. When Skye asked what had frightened him that night, Damien told her Myles had said he felt like killing his wife. He told Damien: “If I do, I’m going to take out 10 other people.”
There was a scream that pierced the night. Dogs barking like crazy. A woman running for her life in the darkness.
The First Nation was remote and isolated, the nearest police 40 minutes away. It was early Sunday morning, and most people were sleeping. The doors of the houses had all the strength of paper. Even with deadbolts, Myles kicked through them with ease. People in the community say he had a knife duct-taped to his wrist.
The first call came in to 911 at 5:40 a.m. It was about a stabbing on the First Nation. Two officers at the Melfort RCMP detachment were dispatched three minutes later, and drove straight to James Smith. Nineteen minutes later, a second call: Two people were hurt at another home.
RCMP officers pulled up to the first house at 6:18 a.m., just as the sun was rising. The scenes they encountered were almost beyond description.
Three people lay dead outside Bonnie and Brian (Buggy) Burns’s home – 48-year-old Bonnie; her son Gregory Burns, 28; and Gloria Burns, a 61-year-old community support worker who had come to the house to help after receiving a crisis call.
Bonnie and Buggy’s son, 11-year-old Dayson, had been stabbed in the neck. Their two other sons and two foster children were terrorized. One of them hid behind a highchair during the murders.
In another home, Skye Sanderson’s father, Christian Head, 54, and his partner, Lana Head, 49, were dead in their bedroom. Skye’s sister-in-law was badly hurt, her brother-in-law clinging to life.
Myles’s in-laws, Joyce Burns and Earl Burns Sr., who had been seriously injured by Myles years earlier, had also been stabbed at their house. Earl had been wounded protecting two grandchildren who lived with them.
Earl, 66, was a cowboy, army veteran and bus driver, and had driven kids in the community to school for 30 years.
After he was injured, Earl had apparently tried to run the killer down, but he died in his school bus between his home and the village. The aging yellow bus came to rest in a ditch, the vehicle and the ground below streaked and stained with blood.
There was Thomas Burns, a 23-year-old father, dead in a driveway. His mother, Carol Burns, 46, had been stabbed to death inside her house. Robert Sanderson, 49, is believed to have been the last person killed in the community.
In total, there were nine victims found dead on the First Nation that morning. Eighteen people were injured, and more than that hid behind furniture, fought back or ran screaming for their lives into the dawn.
Thirty kilometres away, in the town of Weldon, Wesley Petterson’s grandson called 911 from a basement as his grandfather – a 78-year-old widower who was set to host a local seniors’ coffee meetup that morning – was stabbed to death upstairs.
The gravity of the situation was immediately clear to the officers who were first at the scene. Within minutes, RCMP were preparing to issue an emergency alert to the public.
By 7:12 a.m., cellphones around the province buzzed with a warning that a series of stabbings had been committed by two male suspects, and that people in the area should stay in place or seek immediate shelter. The Saskatchewan Health Authority called a Code Orange, indicating a mass casualty event.
As word of the attack began to spread, residents of James Smith gathered at Diamond Country Convenience, across from the Bernard Constant Community School. The gas bar, which acts as a grocery store, coffee shop and meeting place, was in this case a safe haven and refuge.
The James Smith Cree Nation is a close-knit community, with families and lives deeply intertwined. There are about 190 houses on the First Nation. Most in the community share just a handful of surnames. As the names of the dead trickled in one by one, people broke down, over and over again.
Everybody had lost someone. Most had lost multiple friends and family members at once. One woman at the gas bar had lost an auntie, a cousin, a son-in-law and her former partner, the father of her children.
In Saskatoon, Bonnie Burns’s brother, Mark Arcand, woke to the RCMP emergency alert and to messages from his family. He drove straight to Bonnie’s house at James Smith.
“Right outside of her home, she was killed by senseless acts,” he said later, during an emotional news conference with his sister’s husband and their family. “She was protecting her son. She was protecting these three little boys. This is why she’s a hero. She’s a true matriarch in the First Nations way of living.”
On social media, people mourned family and friends, or shared their own experiences. One survivor of the attack showed a stab wound on her back. Another woman posted a picture of a kicked-in door.
In Weldon, a memorial of flowers sprouted alongside Wesley Petterson’s house.
RCMP Assistant Commissioner Rhonda Blackmore, the commanding officer of the Saskatchewan RCMP, was grim as she addressed the media at a news conference in Regina on Sunday afternoon. “It is horrific what has occurred in our province today,” she said.
The suspects in the murders were identified as Myles and Damien Sanderson.
Monday morning came sunny and warm on the James Smith Cree Nation. At times, the only sound was bugs buzzing through the long grass. Yellow crime scene tape surrounded five homes, and evidence markers were fluttering in the breeze.
One day after the attack, the magnitude of the investigation was staggering. RCMP were working to process 13 different crime scenes, while officers who had travelled from around the Prairies were using every investigative and technological tool available to find the suspects before anyone else was hurt.
The entire province was on edge. In isolated country properties and small towns, people locked their doors or kept weapons close at hand.
In Regina, where the suspects were reportedly seen in a black Nissan Rogue on Sunday afternoon, every incident – a truck full of stolen goods flying through an intersection and ramming into a house, a car theft at a mall – seemed like it could be related to the massacre.
Those still in James Smith slept fitfully in shifts, and others left for hotels. Residents peered out from behind curtains and window coverings, warily regarding vehicles passing outside.
There was a heavy RCMP presence, but members of the community’s security force still patrolled in twos. Five teams worked in 12-hour shifts, driving up and down the gravel roads, armed only with radios.
Because there were so many dead and injured, victims had to be spread among different morgues and hospitals. In the days after the attack, families drove into Prince Albert, Saskatoon and Melfort to visit the injured and pick up the dead. Bodies travelled home in hearses accompanied by long processions of cars and pickup trucks.
Families of the victims lit sacred fires, marking the beginnings of wakes that, in the Cree tradition, last up to four days and three nights. Friends and relatives took turns staying with the bodies around the clock, meaning the wakes were often as busy at one in the morning as they had been at one the previous afternoon.
It seemed as though nobody was sleeping. A water truck doused the gravel roads to keep the dust down, so people could see who was driving into the community – and to make sure tired, traumatized drivers didn’t crash their cars in the clouds.
Matriarchs prepared mounds of food. The process of preparing, cooking and cleaning would be repeated three times a day, all four days, for each wake. As soon as one meal was done, preparations for the next began.
Signs of profound trauma were evident everywhere in the community and among its people – visible in trembling hands and blood stains on the ground.
In one busy kitchen, the sound of a knife thwacking through a thick carrot froze everyone in the room. The women all turned to look, staring at the spot where the blade had hit the cutting board.
People cycled through the first round of coinciding wakes: from Gloria’s, to Christian’s, to Lana’s, to Carol’s, to Thomas’s and back again, stopping only to smoke or gather around sacred fires. Four of the injured remained in hospital. Some of those who had survived the attack attended wakes in bandages, moving gingerly.
According to Cree tradition, a body is laid to rest on the fourth day, freeing the spirit to join the ancestors.
At about 11:30 a.m. on Monday, RCMP officers working near Earl Burns’s bus noticed another body in the thick grass, near a stand of birch trees. There were slashes all over his chest, and deep wounds in his stomach. The victim was identified two hours later.
Damien Sanderson was dead, and he hadn’t killed himself.
There was no sign of Myles.
Myles and Damien were just a year apart in age, and to some who knew them they seemed almost like different sides of a coin. Myles was more troubled, wilder, more dangerous. Damien more stable, more level, more caring. “Myles was always trying to drag Damien over to the dark side,” said Tyler Burns, one of Gloria Burns’s adopted sons. “And Damien was always trying to bring him to the light.”
Ever since they were kids, that tension had existed had between them.
Tyler used to babysit the brothers when they were little. He remembers Myles being troubled, wild and angry even as a child.
It was not an easy childhood. Myles’s parole documents describe him moving between homes, and surrounded by drugs, alcohol abuse and violence. He started drinking and using drugs when he was still young, and those substances made his violent tendencies worse. He once described himself as “psychotic” when under the influence, and he told correctional officials that drugs and liquor made him lose his mind.
Myles had been convicted of 59 criminal offences as an adult, many of which involved serious violence. His longest sentence had been four and a half years – his first federal prison term – for three counts of assault with a weapon, assault on a police officer, threatening, robbery and property offences.
During his years in the court system, Myles had participated in domestic violence programs, faced court orders not to have contact with his wife and their children, and even had to write an apology letter to her as part of one sentencing.
Still, the violence against her continued.
Released from prison in August, 2021, on statutory release – which is typically given to offenders who have served two-thirds of their sentences, as a way of reintegrating them into the community with supports in place – Myles moved back in with his wife, then lied to his parole officer about it.
His statutory release was suspended by the Parole Board of Canada in the fall of 2021, and he was taken back into custody. But he was released again in February, with a reprimand.
“It is the Board’s opinion that you will not present an undue risk to society if released on statutory release,” the board’s decision said, “and that your release will contribute to the protection of society by facilitating your reintegration into society as a law-abiding citizen.”
But by spring, Myles had dropped out of touch with his parole supervisor, and a warrant had been issued for his arrest.
He and Damien spent the night before the murders at Beardy’s and Okemasis Cree Nation, about an hour’s drive away, and then returned to James Smith. Others in the community recall them being at the band store, then at a house in the community, and say they were both drinking, and high on meth and cocaine.
Damien’s degree of involvement in the violence was one of the many questions that troubled the people of James Smith in the aftermath of the attack. On social media, witnesses came forward saying they saw only one attacker that morning: Myles. Damien did not have a significant criminal history like his brother, and he was well-regarded in the community. Many who knew the brothers were astonished that Damien had been identified as a suspect, and firmly believed he had been dragged into something by Myles, and was killed trying to stop him.
Skye Sanderson described Damien as “the rock of his family,” and said when they began dating – both were 14 at the time – she was drawn most to his shy, gentle nature. They had the first of their two daughters a couple years later.
Skye thought Myles envied his brother, and said it was Myles who had encouraged Damien to do drugs, including by giving him crystal meth for the first time.
The search for Myles went on night and day. On Tuesday, two full days after the massacre, people in the James Smith community spotted a man in a red shirt who looked like Myles, and another emergency alert was issued. RCMP again sped to the First Nation. Terrified residents scrambled for safety, some grabbing weapons to protect themselves and their families.
But Myles wasn’t found in the area, and the alert was cancelled three hours later.
A full day later, RCMP received a report that Myles had been seen at a home outside Wakaw, about 80 kilometres to the southwest, and had taken off in a stolen white Chevrolet Avalanche. The caller said Myles had a knife. It was just after 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 7.
Phones around the province rattled with another alert while RCMP raced to the area. A police helicopter flew overhead.
Around 3:30 p.m., an RCMP officer in an unmarked vehicle saw the stolen Chevy speeding past at 150 kilometres an hour on Highway 11, near the town of Rosthern.
Officers forced the vehicle off the road and into a ditch and pulled Myles out. Passersby on the busy highway recorded the scene on cellphones. In one image, Myles was shown flanked by officers and pinned against the truck, his hands behind his back. The truck was in the ditch, its doors wide open.
Assistant Commissioner Blackmore faced reporters at RCMP Headquarters in Regina just after 8 p.m. that night.
“Our province is breathing a collective sigh of relief as Myles Sanderson is no longer at large,” she said. “I can confirm that he is no longer a threat, and there is no risk to the public related to this investigation.”
She said Myles had died shortly after his arrest, under circumstances she would describe only as “medical distress.”
Assistant Commissioner Blackmore said RCMP had performed all possible life-saving measures until paramedics arrived, but would not say whether those measures had included medication to deal with a drug overdose. She said an autopsy was being done, and that RCMP had asked the Saskatoon Police Service and the Saskatchewan Incident Response Team to conduct an independent investigation into the circumstances around Myles’s death in custody.
On the James Smith Cree Nation, news of Myles’s arrest brought relief and tears. One couple, who had been driving on a highway when they heard the news, pulled over to the side of the road and stayed there weeping. Others described feeling like they could breathe for the first time in days.
Brian Burns drove to the scene of the arrest so he could thank RCMP officers in person. He said his son Dayson – who lost his mother and brother in the attack, and had been stabbed himself – had been having trouble sleeping knowing the killer was still out there.
“Now we can start to heal,” he said. “The healing begins today, now.”
Around the same time Myles was being taken into custody, his brother Damien’s body was being returned to the First Nation for a wake in the local school gymnasium, the first of many to come.
His casket was wrapped in a Pendleton blanket, with his Calgary Flames jersey hanging on a wall above. There was a table filled with pictures of him and his family. Skye, who arrived expecting to find an empty room, broke down when she saw the gym filled with people.
Those who attended remembered Damien as a loving father, committed to his family. Many believed he had been killed trying to stop Myles from hurting people. Others said they weren’t focused on his role in what happened.
“It was such an honour to see the community united to support Damien’s family – despite what occurred,” said Carmel Crowchild, a pipe carrier and member of the Tsuut’ina First Nation in Alberta. She had known Damien as a child, and had travelled to James Smith to help hold healing ceremonies there in the days after the tragedy.
“It was such a comfort to learn that Damien was still the person that I remembered him to be,” she said.
At the RCMP press conference that night, Assistant Commissioner Blackmore said Damien was still considered to be a suspect in the homicides, but that police were working to understand what had happened between the brothers, and the circumstances surrounding the rampage. She said investigators had conducted 120 interviews with people who knew Myles or saw the attacks, and still had more to do.
“But witnesses and people around him only have so much information,” she added. “His motivation may at this time and forever only be known to Myles.”
Laughter is good medicine, Cree people often say. And amid the pain, there was so much laughter. The gentle chiding and endless joking that are so much a part of Indigenous culture acted like a pressure valve, releasing some of the pain and heaviness hanging over everything and allowing the people of the James Smith Cree Nation to keep moving forward.
“This is how it is in our country where we grew up,” said Mark Arcand, after a moment of laughter during his family’s news conference. “It’s all about relationships. It’s all about family, it’s all about nicknames, it’s all about laughter. It’s all about joy.”
“This is healing,” he said.
Donations were flooding into the community. The tiny Assiniboine community of Mosquito, Grizzly Bear’s Head, Lean Man First Nation donated 480 pounds of elk meat.
The Saddle Lake Cree Nation sent a fridge-sized box of bannock and fry bread, and the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation harvested hundreds of pounds of fish, then sent a team to cook and serve it. Inuit from Rankin Inlet donated gas money to get them there.
Farmers from Saskatchewan and Manitoba dropped off vegetables. The neighbouring communities of Kinistino and Weldon brought boxes of doughnuts and hot coffee from Tim Hortons. People around the country sent money to online fundraising campaigns and trust accounts.
Pipe carriers travelled from across the Prairies to host ceremonies and sweats for the community and guests. A group of exhausted Mounties shed their uniforms to attend one.
Tyler Burns tended the sacred fire for Gloria for four days, thinking about her as he sat beside the flames through the long nights, and into the dawn.
“She’d do this again and again,” he said. “If she hadn’t lost her life, she’d still stick herself out there. Put herself at risk to help.”
Tyler had been thinking about ways he could help his community now, such as forming an “anti-gang,” where troubled kids could go and find support and safety. Gloria took Tyler and his brother in after their mother died, saving him and teaching him valuable lessons that he is now using to deal with the tragedy.
He said he has already forgiven Myles, because he knows if he doesn’t he will only be hurting himself.
“I’ve been the black sheep of the family, too,” he said. “So that’s why I understand both sides of the spectrum.”
How the community can heal from something so devastating will be the question and challenge of the months and years to come. But sitting in the heat and light of his sister’s sacred fire, Darryl Burns told a silent gathering of people about the teachings that were guiding him through the darkness.
“The only thing we can decide is how we feel and what we carry,” he told them. “You can either carry anger or you can carry forgiveness.”
With reports from Alanna Smith and Carrie Tait
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