‘Fishing upstream’: What RCMP psychologists say could stop the next Myles Sanderson

RCMP on Highway 11 after the arrest of Myles Sanderson north of Saskatoon on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2022. -- Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Julia Peterson

Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Warning: This story contains disturbing details and descriptions of violence and abuse some readers may find upsetting.

MELFORT — Dr. Matthew Logan, a criminal psychologist and former RCMP officer, likes to tell a story about a group of friends having a picnic by a river.

Their day is soon interrupted by splashing and shouting — a child has fallen into the water and is being swept downstream. The friends pull the child to safety.

Then it happens again and again — splashing, shouting, another life-saving rescue. They can’t keep up.

Finally, one woman breaks away from the group and starts running back along the river.

“What are you doing?” her friends shout. “We need you here!”

She replies, “I’m going to fix the hole in the bridge.”

That kind of thinking is what it will take to stop the next Myles Sanderson, Logan told a coroner’s inquest into the 2022 mass killings at James Smith Cree Nation and Weldon, Sask.

Working with RCMP Staff Sgt. Carl Sesely, a criminal profiler, Logan compiled a 50-page “post-mortem behaviour analysis” of Sanderson, meant to address questions about why he went on a killing spree that day and in that place.

“This report (is) a step towards early intervention, disrupting those who would seek to inflict mayhem on other communities,” Logan testified.

He and Sesely made clear that “Myles Sanderson was solely responsible for this series of senseless acts of violence” — but who he was, and what he did, didn’t come out of nowhere.

“Chaotic” and “brutal” childhood

“(Myles had) a childhood that was filled with abuse and instability,” Logan told the jury.

While he was incarcerated, he told a Correctional Service Canada psychologist that his upbringing was “chaotic,” “brutal,” and full of conflict; that his father was a harsh, angry person even when sober.

When he was nine and his parents separated, Myles moved to James Smith Cree Nation to live with his paternal grandparents, who were also abusive.

“The violence he witnessed as a child became his way of controlling his environment,” Logan said. “And the intergenerational cycle of violence continued.”

After his grandfather threatened to shoot him, 11-year-old Myles left, spending time on the street before going back to his father’s home. Around that time, he started using cocaine and marijuana and drinking hard alcohol, even though he felt that combination made him “lose (his) mind,” the inquest heard.

He moved around in his early teens and struggled with his education, describing himself as “a horrible student” until he dropped out midway through Grade 10.

“If the teacher called on him in class, he would not know the answer and would be embarrassed and angry,” the report found. “(He) did not like attending (school) because he felt smelly and dirty and far behind the other students.”
His later teen years were spent in youth custody facilities like Kilburn Hall and the Yarrow Youth Farm.

“Impulsivity, irritability, lack of remorse”

Logan cautioned that he could never officially diagnose Sanderson because they never met, but he offered “diagnostic hypotheses” for various disorders and mental illnesses.

He said Sanderson had traits of antisocial personality disorder, as well as anxiety and depression.
“This is someone who likes to break rules,” he said. “He had a hard time staying within the rules of society. … It’s a reckless disregard for self and others. Impulsivity, irritability, lack of remorse.”
Sanderson also thought he had Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), and said his mother drank while pregnant with him. Logan said his mother confirmed that to be true, “with much regret.
By the time of his killing spree, he had a long history of violence, anger and physical attacks.

“He didn’t have a chance”

Vanessa Burns, Sanderson’s ex-partner, said Logan’s testimony gave her “a real deeper understanding” of the man with whom she spent so much of her life.

Throughout their relationship, he was physically abusive. In the days before the stabbing spree, he tried to kill her, choking her and striking her with the sharp end of a broken drug scale while she drove.

Logan and Sesely’s report says that fight was “the trigger point that appears to have initiated the rampage” — his anger at Vanessa combined with his fear of going back to prison, the drugs and alcohol he had taken, multiple days of sleep deprivation and the way his depressive, paranoid thoughts became more intense when he was back on James Smith Cree Nation.

“It was not the fault of (Vanessa),” the report emphasized. “He had physically and emotionally abused her for years, and had served a federal sentence for attacking her parents with a knife in 2019. She is fortunate to be alive.”

Vanessa said Logan’s testimony answered some questions that had haunted her for years.

“It made me feel a little sad,” she said. “Myles, he didn’t have a chance.”

Psychologist calls for early intervention

Logan said families, communities, teachers, police and support workers need to focus on early intervention — fixing the ‘hole in the bridge,’ as he calls it, before any more children fall through.

“If we pour more money and effort into children, and we spend the time and put the effort in with children, we can prevent a lot of what happens later in life,” he said. “‘Fishing upstream’ is, starting at age eight … making sure the child is surrounded by people who are supporting them and moving them in the right direction.

“Too often, we wait until they are aged 16 in a juvenile facility — or, worse yet, aged 18 in a correctional facility. I’m a big believer in starting early and wrapping the community around these children. …

“We work together so that we can help surround the youth who needs help, so there are no gaps in the system, and people don’t fall through the cracks.”

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).