Coroner’s inquest into James Smith Cree Nation, Weldon mass killing underway

The public inquest into the mass stabbing at James Smith Cree Nation and Weldon in 2022 was set for two weeks in January 2024. When RCMP on April 27, 2023 outlined what happened during the stabbing rampage, photos of the victims were on display with candles on stage. -- Michelle Berg/Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Julia Peterson

Saskatoon StarPhoenix

A coroner’s inquest into the mass killing on a Saskatchewan First Nation will give families of the victims “a true, public, factual account of what happened,” the province’s chief coroner says.

In the hours before the inquest was set to begin on Monday morning, a plume of smoke from a tall teepee cut through the bitter cold air outside the Kerry Vickar Centre in Melfort, located just a short drive from the communities of James Smith Cree Nation and Weldon.

As people filtered in — survivors and the families of the victims, potential jurors heading into jury selection, members of the coroner’s service, community members dressed in ‘James Smith Cree Nation Strong’ t-shirts, wellness and support workers — the large auditorium filled with quiet, solemn, anticipatory conversation.

The inquest will shed light onto the events of Sept. 4, 2022, when Myles Sanderson killed 11 people and injured 17 others on the James Smith Cree Nation and in the nearby village of Weldon.

Sanderson, who was 32, died in police custody a few days later.

The inquest is to establish the events leading up to the killings, who died, and when and where each person was killed. A jury can also make recommendations to prevent similar deaths.

RCMP testimony begins

On Monday afternoon, Staff Sergeant Robin Zentner of the Saskatchewan RCMP’s major crimes division was called as the inquest’s first witness.

On the morning of Sept. 4, 2022, Zentner’s team was on call in Saskatoon when they got a call from the Melfort detachment.

“As you can imagine, the incident was pretty chaotic at the onset, and the information changed over time,” recalled Zentner. “Initially, when I was notified, I was told there had been one deceased and two injured individuals.”

As he notified his team and got on the road, the numbers of reported dead and injured continued to climb.

“This investigation was the largest homicide investigation in Saskatchewan RCMP history (and) it pretty quickly became apparent that we needed additional RCMP resources (for) the ever-increasing number of injured and deceased scenes that we were attending at,” he said.

RCMP called in more teams — from the RCMP, municipal police services from across western Canada, and beyond.

“We actually had employees from 10 different provinces here in the area, assisting with the investigation,” Zentner said.

On Monday afternoon, he began to take the inquest through a nearly 200-slide PowerPoint summarizing “essentially the entire RCMP investigation.”

This covered information gleaned from survivor and witness interviews, forensic examinations, and data retrieved from cell phones and social media accounts.

According to the RCMP, Myles Sanderson’s criminal history began in 2004 in youth justice court; his last conviction occurred in 2019, for robbery and assault with a weapon.

Over the course of those 15 years, he amassed a total of 78 convictions — nearly half of which (35) were for failing to appear in court, comply with court orders or comply with release conditions.

The rest of his convictions related to robbery, assault (including aggravated assault, assaulting police, assault with a weapon, and causing bodily harm), breaking and entering, drugs, resisting arrest, uttering threats, obstruction, mischief, driving-related offences, breach of a community sentence order and being unlawfully at large.

On Monday afternoon, Zentner walked the inquest through a timeline of events from Thursday, September 1st, 2022, to the morning of September 4th when the mass murder took place.

At the start of those four days, Vanessa Burns, Myles Sanderson’s partner, told the RCMP she and Myles Sanderson had been selling cocaine on James Smith Cree Nation.

On the afternoon of the 2nd, Vanessa says Myles started to fight with her and then physically assaulted her, hitting her in the head with a scale and trying to strangle her while she was driving.

When she was able to get out of the car, Damien Sanderson — Myles’ brother — saw what was happening and “tried to calm Myles down,” Vanessa Burns told the RCMP.

Myles and Damien eventually left, and Vanessa returned to Saskatoon.

Messages exchanged between Damien Sanderson and his wife Skye Sanderson over the following days show Damien becoming increasingly fatalistic, and worried about the police being called on him and his brother.

Witness interviews also describe Damien and Miles getting into various fights and physical altercations with other community members — some who were reportedly waving gang-related bandanas; in other cases, witnesses saw no clear reason for the fight.

In the early hours of Saturday, September 3rd, Skye Sanderson called RCMP to report Damien had taken her car without permission, and that he had an outstanding warrant for his arrest.

Two officers for the Melfort RCMP detachment crossed paths with Damien Sanderson while responding to the call; he gave a false name, and they didn’t identify him.

Meanwhile, Damien and Skye were exchanging messages, where Damien told her he was “down to die me and my brother,” “I’m not scared to die” and “I’m willing to die.”

As this was taking place, less than 24 hours before the mass murder Zentner emphasized that “at no time, during all of the interactions Melfort Detachment officers had with Skye (Sanderson), was Myles Sanderson’s name mentioned or any threats of violence reported.”

The messages between Skye and Damien Sanderson continued throughout the morning, with Damien telling her “We ain’t going down alive” and “Watch us!! Mark my words,” and “not going in live.”

Those messages “obviously really stand out now, looking back, based on the events that have taken place,” said Zentner.

That afternoon, community member Caitlin Sanderson got a visit from Myles and Damien.

When asked what had brought them over, Myles said “I came for one body,” pointed to Gregory Burns’ home and identified him by a nickname.

According to Zentner’s summary, Caitlin thought Myles was joking, and the three went inside to talk and smoke.

“Myles told Caitlin that he could not do life anymore and he was screwed up,” Zentner told the inquest. “It looked to her like he was about to cry.”

Later, when Gregory Burns did come over, Caitlin said both Myles and Damien yelled at him, and Myles started hitting him — though no weapons were involved, no one was seriously injured, and no one reported the assault to the police.

In the evening, Damien and Myles went their separate ways for a few hours — Damien went to a bar in Kinistino, while Myles remained on JSCN.

But around 11 PM, after Damien Sanderson returned to JSCN, he and Myles were involved in another physical fight where they called for fellow community member Davis Head to come out of his house, then “pushed him to the ground and started pushing and stomping on him,” Zentner said.

Again, Zentner emphasized, no weapons were involved, no one was seriously hurt, and no one called the police.

Just after midnight on September 4th, phone records show Damien Sanderson was continuing to text his loved ones.

“Everything is not good right now,” he wrote to Kelly Shane Burns. “Your lil’ bro is lost. I’m not ok. Lost soul right now.”

Damien and Myles were also continuing to sell drugs, and at around 4 in the morning, they borrowed a car.

Witnesses described Damien as being “in a good mood”, while Myles seemed “distant.”

45 minutes later, Kara Head found the two of them “guzzling booze” and “pumping themselves up” for something, she told the RCMP.

She also said Myles had asked her for a knife, which she refused to give him.

At 5:05 in the morning, Damien texted his wife: “love you so much skye my last message.”

At 5:12, he texted her: “we going out.”

And immediately before the stabbings began, at 5:15 AM, he sent one final text to Kelly Shane Burns: “love ya brotha last time you gonna hear from me.”

As Zentner wrapped up his testimony for the day, he offered the following summary of the events leading up to the stabbings:

“Prior to the mass casualty event, Myles Sanderson was known by community members to: Be in and around JSCN; to be wanted by police; to have engaged in illegal activities (and) to have committed assaults on multiple individuals,” he said. “At no point between September 1, 2022 and September 4, 2022 was the RCMP contacted about the presence or activities of Myles Sanderson in or around the JSCN.’

Zentner’s testimony will resume on Tuesday, where he is expected to describe the RCMP’s investigation of the stabbings themselves.

Messages of condolence

As the inquest began, the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations expressed its solidarity with the people of James Smith Cree Nation and Weldon, as they prepare to learn more about the tragic circumstances of their loved ones’ injuries and deaths.

“We are heartbroken for everyone who is affected,” said FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron. “This is the devastation we face when dangerous, illicit drugs enter our communities, and we urge all authorities to follow the guidance of the chiefs and councils and their members to create safer and healthier communities for our people.”

‘I’m not going to lie; it’s going to be a difficult inquest’

The inquest was opened by Hal Eagletail, a member of the TsuuT’ina Nation in southern Alberta, who spoke about how faith, spiritual practice and ceremonies can help people carry on through tragedy. Eagletail offered prayers for the families and communities of James Smith Cree Nation and Weldon, as well as a prayer for “an outcome that can help (prevent) future tragedies from happening.”

Lawyer Blaine Beaven, presiding as coronor for the inquest, began by selecting eight jury members —  a challenging process, with many people excluded due to their relationships with the victims, and given the emotional weight of the taxing, multi-week process.

“I’m not going to lie,” Beaven told the potential jurors. “It’s going to be a difficult inquest.”

As the proceedings reconvened in the afternoon, Beaven also offered a reminder that the intention of this work is to provide “a positive, future-oriented process.”

“Often, when we look at tragic events, it is difficult to see how anything positive could come out of that,” he said. “(But) you (jurors) have the opportunity of turning this tragic event into some good, by making practical recommendations to avoid similar tragedies in the future.”

‘The objective is to have the story told’

Saskatchewan’s chief coroner Clive Weighill was present at the inquest Monday morning. He said this is the largest inquest of its type in Saskatchewan’s history.

“The objective is to have the story told, honour those victims that died on that day and try to come up with some recommendations that will help prevent this happening again in the future,” Weighill said.

On the first day of the inquest, Weighill said RCMP investigators will “walk everybody through what happened for the hours leading up to the event and the event itself.”

Weighill has spent the last year and a half meeting with the families of the victims, talking to them about what they need from the inquest and preparing them for the process.

“It’s been really heartfelt to listen to the stories, to see the pain and try to help the community through this,” he said.

“There’s not going to be a trial, so this is the only way that the families and the public can hear exactly what happened — a true, public, factual account of what happened.”

Over the course of the inquest, Weighill said the jury will hear from Corrections Canada and the parole board, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and a forensic pathologist from the coroner’s office, who will give “a detailed account of each cause of death.”

This inquest will not hear details of the death of Miles Sanderson; that will be addressed by a separate inquest in Saskatoon in February. Public inquests are mandatory in Saskatchewan when a person dies in police custody.

‘Out nation has went through a lot’

James Smith Cree Nation Chief Wally Burns said the inquest will likely bring back trauma for community members, but he hopes it will also help with healing.

“Our nation has went through a lot, is dealing with a lot,” Burns said in a recent interview.

The Saskatchewan Coroners Service has said the inquest, which is before a six-person jury, is expected to last at least two weeks.

Weighill also cautioned that an inquest is for transparency and is not designed to find fault.

RCMP have said Sanderson was stealing vehicles, busting down doors and going door-to-door stabbing people during the rampage.

A coroner was in the community last week to prepare families for graphic details expected to be presented during the inquest, Burns said.

The chief said the First Nation is preparing to support community members through cultural ceremonies and will provide other health services they may need.

Burns said he hopes the inquest will provide recommendations about self-administered policing for the First Nation. He added he would like to see First Nations receive a notification when a member is released from prison.

Sanderson, who had a record of violent assaults, had received statutory release earlier that year but was unlawfully at large at the time of the killings.

— With files from Canadian Press