James Smith Cree Nation hosts annual gathering following mass stabbings

RCMP Assistant Commissioner Rhonda Blackmore puts her hand on Elder Shirley Sanderson’s shoulder after James Smith Cree Nation honoured her with a star blanket on Aug. 21, 2023. – Jayda Taylor/Daily Herald

“It will hurt for the rest of our lives,” says elder

A healing gathering on James Smith Cree Nation this week is helping those impacted by a mass killing nearly a year ago move forward.

The community continues to grieve a string of stabbings that left 11 dead and 17 injured on Sept. 4, 2022. 

This led to the arrest of the accused, Myles Sanderson, four days later. Police say he went into medical distress and died shortly after his arrest.

The majority of the deaths occurred in James Smith Cree Nation, located about 58 km east of Prince Albert, along with one in the nearby village of Weldon.

“It’s still hurting, and I guess it will hurt for the rest of our lives,” said Elder Shirley Sanderson.

“To see our people come together like this, we are healing each other, especially James Smith. This is what we want and need for our people today.”

Sanderson described being a “first responder” to the stabbings, peering into each of the homes where people were attacked. 

While it’s difficult to look back on, Sanderson knows the answer to healing – culture. The gathering taking place this week is an opportunity for those impacted to connect with their language, traditions and elders, she said.

“This is a healthy ordeal in our community,” added Chief Calvin Sanderson of Chakastaypasin First Nation, one of the three bands that make up James Smith Cree Nation.

“Seeing all the tragedy at the grounds here, families grieving, sitting at the side of their loved ones until the first responders and the ambulance and the coroners came there. They gathered there and they paid their respects, laid their tobacco and moved on. It is horrific.”

(From left to right) Peter Chapman Chief Robert Head, Chakastaypasin Chief Calvin Sanderson and James Smith Cree Nation Chief Wally Burns speak at the opening ceremonies of the traditional health gathering on Aug. 21, 2023. – Jayda Taylor/Daily Herald

The community honoured those who assisted after the killings with star blankets as part of the event’s opening ceremonies. The ceremony recognized community members, volunteers, RCMP, STARS, health care workers and local leadership.

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) hosts the traditional health gathering annually across different First Nations. It includes sweat lodges, elders talks, motivational speakers, land teachings and traditional food.

During the opening ceremonies, Assistant Commissioner Rhonda Blackmore said the RCMP is working to recruit more Indigenous people. One of the applicants was a man from James Smith.

“I was speaking with him back in February at a session that we hosted in Regina, and he spoke about wanting to be a protector, wanting to be a protector of his community,” she said.

Blackmore said the RCMP is hoping to have an all Indigenous troupe, made up of mostly Saskatchewan members, starting late winter or early spring. However, she said the RCMP supports First Nations moving towards self-administered policing.

“We want to contribute to that; we want to support that and we want to be part of that because that is how we’re going to change things in the future and make things better.”

James Smith Cree Nation Chief Wally Burns said the First Nation’s goal is to have its own policing.

“We’ve got to move forward in our own identity,” said Burns.

“We have visited numerous First Nations that do have their First Nations policing, but it’s just waiting there at the federal government in regards to approval.”

Burns said the community also put its own trained security in place a few months ago.

He added that the healing gathering “opens up another chapter” for the community following the trauma endured last year.

“Today, we’re still building the hope within ourselves with our families, our friends and also our nation. And I’m very privileged to say that everything is slowly progressing with the healing process,” he said.

“Hope for myself is change, and if we grab it right now, I think we have resilience with our young people.”

James Smith Cree Nation includes three bands: James Smith, Peter Chapman and Chakastaypasin.

The traditional health gathering runs from Monday to Thursday.