‘A long road ahead’: chiefs, RCMP respond to inquest recommendations

Chief Wally Burns, James Smith Cree Nation responds to inquest recommendations. -- Michelle Burns/Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Julia Peterson

Saskatoon StarPhoenix

The coroner’s inquest into the 2022 mass killings at James Smith Cree Nation and Weldon concluded with 29 recommendations, addressed to groups and organizations including the RCMP, Correctional Service Canada, James Smith Cree Nation and the Ministry of Public Safety.

In response, James Smith Cree Nations chiefs, RCMP Assistant Commissioner Rhonda Blackmore, policing services and Indigenous leaders reflected on what they’ve heard and what they think should be done next.

“We’ve got to come together,” said JSCN Chief Wally Burns. “(We’ll be) working with the federal departments, such as the RCMP, making that partnership stronger on things like this, working with the province, too (and) making sure the recommendations are followed. …

“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. I really want to look at how we can move forward, especially with self-administered policing, addictions awareness, and all the areas that have traumatized our people.”

When she heard the inquest’s recommendations on Thursday, Chelsea Stonestand, who represented the family of Bonnie and Gregory Burns at the inquest, said she felt “such relief,” and was “blown away by all the consideration that was put into it.”

She said she feels some important recommendations were missing — especially related to the RCMP’s response time when called out to an Indigenous community, the number of Indigenous people serving on the Parole Board of Canada and the presence of drugs in jails and prisons. 

Police response time is a particularly critical issue, especially because Indigenous communities did not choose the location of their reserves, or how close they might be to a police force, she said.

“One of the recommendations was for our community to have better signage,” Stonestand noted. “And we will take that recommendation; we’ll step up to it. But it’s important to recognize that Indigenous communities were forced into reserve. …

“Self-administered policing is going to help. But it’s not going to be quick enough. In the meantime, we need a better response time for our community and all Indigenous communities.”

Blackmore said she is eager to “see what (the RCMP) can do to implement and address the recommendations,” and hopes something positive can come from the tragedy.

“The ‘win’ comes when there is no tragedy; when we don’t have victims, when we don’t have to look at trying to heal people from horrible incidents,” she said. “That’s where we want to move to — more proactive work.”

Speaking in Saskatoon, Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Cindy Woodhouse was emotional as she offered her condolences to the families and communities affected.

“My heart goes out to you,” she said.

Now, change needs to happen to keep Indigenous communities safe, she added.

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“It’s going to take a long time, and it’s a long road ahead. But working together, as we’ve seen, we can come to some conclusions and try to find a path forward.”

She said the staggering loss of life on Sept. 4, 2022 is “a prime example” of why Indigenous communities need their own police forces, with stable, sufficient and predictable funding to support their work. If JSCN had its own police, response times would be much faster and officers would know the community better, she added.

That’s why the AFN is asking the federal government to support Indigenous community police forces in Saskatchewan and beyond, Woodhouse said.

“We will advocate for $3.6 billion in the next federal budget, at the end of March. We cannot be left out (and) we cannot leave communities vulnerable.” 

The National Police Federation (NFP) said it welcomes the recommendations from the inquest and wants Saskatchewan to spend more on hiring new police officers throughout the province and improving the front-line response in rural and remote communities.

“It is disheartening to see the province’s limited financial commitment to the RCMP at a time when the government has allocated $20 million annually to a nascent 70-member marshal service which replicates tasks already performed very well by the RCMP,” said Brian Sauvé, president of the NFP.

“As the inquest concluded, (RCMP) members have been filling the gaps created by outdated and inadequate funding for far too long.”

The NFP wants the province to allocate $100 million over the next five years to hire 300 new officers, and a further $2 million to study police service delivery models in rural and remote communities.

Coroner’s inquest into James Smith mass stabbing concludes with 29 recommendations

MELFORT — It took several solemn minutes for jury members to read out when, where and how each of Myles Sanderson’s victims died on the morning of Sept. 4, 2022.

Along with presiding coroner Blaine Beaven, they also laid out their roadmap for preventing similar tragedies in the future.

For many in the James Smith Cree Nation and Weldon communities, the conclusion of the inquest also brought a measure of closure, and even some laughter on Wednesday.

“This has brought us together,” said elder James Burns, before ending the inquest with a prayer.

“I’ve seen a lot of healing, families talking, laughing, hugging, shaking hands. That was not there. Now it is there. So I thank everyone for their participation in this inquiry. I never thought it would be possible to happen this way, but it did.”

Together, Beaven and the jurors delivered nearly 30 recommendations — a large number from a coroner’s inquest — after hearing from RCMP, Correctional Service Canada, James Smith Cree Nation and the Ministry of Public Safety.

“This has been an extraordinarily difficult few weeks,” Beaven said.

“It’s been difficult for the jury. It’s been difficult for the counsel. And that pales completely in comparison to the difficulty that must have been felt by the survivors of the attacks, the families of those involved and the community at large.

“This inquest is a forward-looking process. Despite the challenges that we face in this inquest emotionally, there is a hope that I have that something positive will come out of this tragedy, and these recommendations will be followed or considered, and we will see a positive change in society.”

Addressing the CSC, RCMP, James Smith Cree Nation leaders and the Ministry of Public Safety, the recommendations touch on everything from improvements to RCMP photo databases and the emergency alert system to comprehensive community health, wellness and cultural programming on James Smith Cree Nation and wide-reaching supports for people leaving prison and reintegrating into the community.

For Chelsea Stonestand, the recommendations are a comfort. She represented the family of Bonnie and Gregory Burns at the inquest, and had asked questions of witnesses throughout the process. She had been anxious about what the coroner and the jury would say, she said.

“As Indigenous people, we’ve lost hope in the justice system and in other systems that affect our everyday life. But when we sat down with Blaine (Beaven) and we heard (the recommendations), it brought such relief,” she said.

“I felt blown away by all the consideration that was put into it. It’s not perfect, but it’s practical … I don’t doubt that there was more they wish they could have given, but we are thankful for what we’ve received.”

She said the inquest has been “a roller coaster,” bringing up emotions about what happened that day, the community’s unfathomable loss, and all that has happened since.

“I think back to the days where they spoke about the autopsies,” Stonestand said.

“Hearing them created a lot of anger and frustration within us, and questions. How could somebody do this? But when it got to witness testimony from the elders and the parole officers who had a report with Myles, and they spoke about the good man he was and the engaged offender that he was in the program that he tried to stay active in, that brought more empathy to me as a community member.

“It reminded me that we need to stay neutral, but as Indigenous people, we are always forgiving people. We will always be forgiving to our people and to the rest of society.”

Some of the victims’ family members said they would have liked more expansive recommendations, particularly related to the impacts of residential schools and intergenerational trauma in Indigenous communities.

“Our young people, they feel that anger, but they don’t know where it comes from,” said Darryl Burns, whose sister was killed in the attacks.

“And if you don’t know where it comes from, how can you break it? Myles was an angry man. An angry, angry person. He didn’t know where his anger came from.”

These recommendations are a starting point, and could grow into lasting changes that his sister would have been proud to be part of, he said.

“If my sister’s death means that something positive is going to come out of this, then her legacy is going to live on.

“Our community needed some changes for a long time — and not just our community. Every community across Canada and across our world deals with these same impacts that we are dealing with in our community. So for these people to lose their lives and create awareness across the world, it’s huge.”

In the future, it will be a matter of action and accountability, to see whether and how the recommendations will be followed. In Saskatchewan, the coroner does not have the power to enforce — only to suggest.

“Now, it’s just a waiting game to see if any or all of the recommendations will be followed,” Burns said.

Stonestand said the community will keep a close eye on what happens in the weeks, months and years ahead.

“Everything can look good on paper,” she said.

“What really matters is that we see the action in our agencies and in our communities. The coroner’s office has vocalized and stressed that they will work closely with us and keep us updated on these recommendations. And we will continue … to push for what is needed in our communities.”

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger of self-harm or experiencing suicidal thoughts, please contact Crisis Services Canada (1-833-456-4566), Saskatoon Mobile Crisis (306-933-6200), Prince Albert Mobile Crisis Unit (306-764-1011), Regina Mobile Crisis Services (306-525-5333) or the Hope for Wellness Help Line, which provides culturally competent crisis intervention counselling support for Indigenous peoples (1-855-242-3310).