Inquest into Sask. mass stabbing concludes; jury to begin deliberations Tuesday

Michelle Berg/Saskatoon StarPhoenix. RCMP on Highway 11 after the arrest of Myles Sanderson north of Saskatoon on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022.

After more than two weeks of testimony, a coroner’s inquest into the 2022 mass stabbing has heard its final witness.

Julia Peterson, Saskatoon StarPhoenix

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

MELFORT — After more than two weeks of testimony, a coroner’s inquest into the 2022 mass stabbing has heard its final witness.

The jury, which is tasked with confirming the time and manner in which people died and offering recommendations to prevent similar tragedies, will begin deliberations Tuesday morning.

On Sept. 4, 2022, Myles Sanderson killed 11 people and injured 17 others in his home community of James Smith Cree Nation and the nearby village of Weldon.

He died in police custody three days later, after a province-wide manhunt.

Kim Beaudin, national Vice-Chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, has been at the inquest, listening to the questions and suggestions brought forward.

He said the jury has a monumental task ahead, and he hopes the recommendations will “have some teeth” and be put into practice.

“I’ve been involved in inquiries before,” Beaudin said. “We can recommend ’til the buffalos come home; but if there’s no changes, it’s just not going to happen.”

At times, the scope of the inquest felt too narrow, making it more difficult to address relevant questions about drugs and addictions, Indigenous community safety,  intergenerational trauma and the corrections system, he said.

“This is a national discussion, here. This is not just Saskatchewan. And I’ve had calls from people saying we should actually have a national inquiry into what happened here.”

In the final day of testimony, the inquest heard from Elders who worked with Sanderson during his time in prison, in the years before the attacks.

‘The support is not there for them’

Elder Geraldine Arcand said the first time she met Sanderson during his incarceration, he was “quiet. But he spoke, and he was respectful.”

She had hoped he would be able to set his life on a better path once he got out of prison — and he had made progress — but she also knew he would need more help to get there, Arcand testified.

“What I thought of, when I was meeting with him, was that this young man needs guidance. He needs the support. To me, anyways, at the time, he felt remorseful as to what happened. He talked about his children, and that he wanted to be there for them.”

When she heard about what happened, she was saddened on many levels, she said.

“I would just like to express my sympathy and thoughts that I’ve had with the families. My heart goes out to them and the children and everyone that’s been touched by this.”

Elder Harvey Knight, who also worked with Sanderson while he was incarcerated, said the events of Sept. 4, 2022 are still impossible for him to fathom.

“I feel so sorry for the families,” he said. “My heart — I’m related to those people. I’m from Muskoday First Nation. We’re really close together. It’s still with me. … As for what happened after I was involved with him, I just cannot comprehend.”

Knight said he remembers Sanderson as respectful, thoughtful and receptive to traditional teachings.

“He had a sort of childlike demeanour about him. When he talked about his past, it was in a way that a child would talk about his past. I felt my heart go out to him; I felt compassion for him, when he spoke.”

Knight said he always knew Sanderson to be “of sober mind” in prison. He thought Sanderson’s “heart was in the right place” about addressing his substance use, but he would have to be cautious when released.

When he heard about the attacks, Knight said he remembered thinking substances must have been involved.

“I can only assume that he had to be on some kind of drugs or something like that, to do something like that. I can’t fathom any more than that.”

He deeply wishes Sanderson had been able to stay sober after release, he added.

“Really, there has to be support out there for the inmates, or for people who are going back to their communities. There has to be support for them so they can be involved in healthy networks of human interaction with their culture, with their traditions, and to stay away from the alcohol and drugs, the parties, the drinking, whatever will get them into trouble.  … They tend to reoffend and have relapses because the support is not there for them.”

Arcand said people leaving prison can find a stark lack of support waiting for them in the outside world.

They may have benefitted from — or come to depend on — the classes, supports, ceremonies and programs tin prison, which are much harder to access on their own.

“Once you get out, you will be the one that has to do the legwork to find those services,” Arcand said. “And that may not be possible.”

She would like to see a more holistic transition process for people leaving prison, with more involvement from Indigenous communities in particular, she said.

“What would be ideal is that, if the Elder who is working with him at the institution, and maybe the parole officer and possibly the teacher or facilitator, can sit down and meet with the people in the community — and maybe he can be a part of that — I think that would be good. I think that would work well.”

Arcand and Knight said there is a serious shortage of Elders within the correctional system, let alone as network of support for people leaving prison.

“If there are any more Elders out there, come and work,” said Knight. “We’re in dear need.”

Understanding the parole process

On Monday morning, the inquest heard from the Parole Board of Canada’s deputy director of policy, Monica Irfan, who spoke about the policies behind the different types of parole and statutory release.

Irfan was not directly involved in Sanderson’s file, but offered a high-level explanation for why certain decisions were made in his case, such as why he was denied parole but then sent back into the community on statutory release.

In Canada, the parole board considers two main factors in every case — whether a person will present an undue risk to society if they are released from prison, and whether having them out in the community will facilitate their eventual reintegration into society, Irfan said.

When Sanderson applied for parole, he was denied. The parole board at the time noted in its decision that “While initial gains have been made, these gains have been assessed as insufficient at this time to mitigate the risk,” Irfan said.

However, under Canadian law, federal offenders who have served two thirds of a fixed-length sentence are almost always entitled to leave prison on “statutory release.”

Earlier in the inquest, Cindy Gee, Correctional Service Canada (CSC) district director for Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba, testified that this type of “gradual release” is generally safer for all involved, compared to keeping someone behind bars as long as possible. 

They are still under supervision, and may have to follow certain conditions, as was the case for Sanderson. 

To stay on statutory release, he had to stay substance-free, avoid people involved in criminal activity, enrol in a treatment program and have no friendships or sexual relationships with women without prior permission from his parole officer, Irfan said.

Until the attacks, there was nothing particularly unusual about Sanderson’s case, Irfan said, adding that she could offer no recommendations for the jury to consider for how things might be done differently in the future.

“I don’t have anything,” she said.

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).