‘I forgive those boys’: mass murder victims’ family focuses on healing 1 year after James Smith Cree Nation tragedy

Dancers lead the dignitaries into the pow wow grounds during the Grand Entry of the James Smith Cree Nation Pow Wow on Saturday, Sept. 2. -- Submitted photo.

It didn’t take Ivor Wayne Burns long to forgive his sister’s killer.

Gloria Lydia Burns was one of 11 people killed in a mass murder committed on James Smith Cree Nation and the nearby community of Weldon on Sept. 4, 2022. Funeral preparations were still underway when Ivor and his family met at his house with one mission: forgiveness.

“We forgave those boys the same day they took my sister to the funeral home,” Ivor says. “We gathered in my yard, and of course, there were bad things said that shouldn’t have been said, but I said, ‘hold it, hold it.’ I said, ‘Gather everybody here.’ So they yelled at everybody, ‘come here, the old man’s going to talk.’ They came and I said, ‘I’m going to share a prayer, and after I share my prayer, all together, we’re going to say, ‘I forgive those boys for what they did.’”

Those boys were brothers Myles and Damien Sanderson, the primary suspects in a province-wide manhunt that lasted four days until Myles’ arrest on Hwy 312 near Rosthern. Damien, it was later determined, was among the victims on James Smith Cree Nation. Myles later went into medical distress, and died in Saskatoon’s Royal University Hospital.

One year after the mass murder, Ivor still stresses the need to forgive. He doesn’t hate Myles or Damien for their roles in the massacre. Instead, he puts the focus on drugs and alcohol.

“We have to put the blame where it comes from,” he says. “It comes from the alcohol and all them hardcore drugs that are in our land.”

Ivor and his family have done their best to forgive, and are still on their healing journey. He said offering forgiveness has helped the family “move along a little faster” but he worries some family and community members will turn to alcohol to deaden the pain.

With it being nearly one year since the mass killing, Ivor wants community members to reach out and talk to each other instead of suffering in silence.

He also wants everyone in Saskatchewan to be honest about what happened one year ago. It wasn’t just a “stabbing”, he says. It was a mass murder.

“It was a slaughter. Eleven people died and 18 were severely injured. To me, that’s not a stabbing. To me, that’s kind of covering up, that’s sugar-coating a great mass murder, and to me, that’s not right.”

Ivor was among hundreds of community members who gathered at their local cultural grounds for their annual pow wow on Sept. 2, two days before the one-year remembrance ceremonies scheduled for Sept. 4. The pow wow was a main staple for the community for years, giving local dancers and singers a chance to showcase their abilities. This year, Ivor says, it will help the community heal too.

“I’m glad that things are happening the way they’re supposed to happen,” he says. “I’m honoured that I’m here today at the pow wow, because the pow wow is a place of the healing dances.”

James Smith Cree Nation Chief Wally Burns was among the dignitaries who took part in a special pipe ceremony before the start of the pow wow on Friday. Burns says they’ve tried to offer support to community members who needed it over the past year, but it hasn’t been easy. He’s grateful for the mothers, grandmothers, fathers, and grandfathers who have rallied over the past year to support those who are hurting.

Chief Wally Burns enters to the pow wow grounds during the Grand Entry on Saturday, Sept. 2. — Submitted photo.

“The struggle is real,” he says. “Looking at it in perspective where we’ve got to support them in all avenues, especially in the mental wellness, I’m really thankful for my membership.”

Burns isn’t just thinking of his own community this weekend. He’s thinking of Weldon too, the home 78-year-old Wesley Petterson, the only victim who was not from James Smith Cree Nation.

“It’s not only James Smith that struggles,” Burns says. “We’ve got to think of the people of Weldon and bringing them together. I’m hoping they participate with our pow wow.”

Like Ivor, Burns worries some residents will turn to alcohol to deal with any negative emotions. So far, he says, there are no signs drinking is on the rise, and he’s hoping events like the annual pow wow can help keep it that way.

“This way is the only way as First Nations people,” he says. “During dance, songs, and ceremonies, I know this is going to be a full event of crying, happiness, and full of joy, and I’m very thankful.”

While the three-day pow wow will be a celebration, the activities scheduled for Sept. 4 will be much more sombre. Media are only allowed on the First Nation for a short two-hour interval at a set time on Monday. Any non-community members found there at all other hours will be asked to leave.

The First Nation has planned a memorial service at St. Stephen’s Anglican Church led by Arch Deacon Wilfred Sanderson and Rev. Theresa Sanderson, a ribbon cutting for the new health centre that will be dedicated to Gloria Burns, and a candlelight vigil in the evening outside Bernard Constant School. None of the events are open to the public.

There will be several family events too, including one organized by Ivor and his relatives. They’ll hold a feast and a round dance in honour of Gloria on Oct. 14.

Ivor says Gloria was a hard worker who always tried to help people, and that’s how he wants her to be remembered.

“My sister was a very caring person,” he says. “She went around helping everybody.”