‘You can feel the heaviness’ at inquest into 2022 mass killings in Sask., treaty commissioner says

by Julia Peterson

Saskatoon StarPhoenix

MELFORT — Throughout the ongoing inquest into the 2022 mass killings at James Smith Cree Nation and Weldon, representatives from the Office of the Treaty Commissioner have been present, watching for the next steps to be offered to the communities, survivors and organizations involved.

“You can feel the heaviness,” said Treaty Commissioner Mary Musqua-Culbertson. “You can feel the hurt. As Indigenous people, we are expecting justice from a system that was not made for us.”

Attending the inquest is one of Musqua-Culbertson’s last acts as Treaty Commissioner; Jan. 28 will be her final day in the role.

She plans to return for the third week of the inquest on her own time; it’s a responsibility for all people to pay attention to what happens, she said.

“I know the systemic challenges, and the insurmountable pain and hurt that these communities and these people and the victims — and all Aboriginal communities — have felt from the events that happened a year and a half ago.

“It’s important that we are here to support the people of the community and the survivors, to bear witness. That’s one of the purposes of a public inquiry. Because there is no trial, this is where facts can come out. This is where questioning can happen.”

Listening to witnesses from Correctional Service Canada, the RCMP and others describing their interactions with Sanderson before the attacks, the inquest is “very much laying out a picture of systemic failure,” Musqua-Culbertson said.

“The system is flawed. Things did not go how they should,” she added.

“I hope there is some healing and some peace that comes from this inquest. And if the community decides they want more justice — if they want a federal-level inquiry, or a mass casualties commission — I hope there would be people out there who would support them. We all need to support this community.”

“Their deaths should mean something”

Darryl Burns’s sister, Lydia Gloria Burns, was one of Myles Sanderson’s victims. She was a crisis worker on James Smith Cree Nation and a first responder, and was killed while trying to save another victim’s life. 

As the inquest continues, Burns said “the only hope I have out of all of this” is that systems will be improved, to prevent another tragedy.

“The recommendations that are going to come out of this are going to be huge,” he said. “And not only are the recommendations huge, but they have to be implemented.”

Burns said he hasn’t heard enough recommendations from the people who worked with Myles Sanderson in the correctional system about what could be done differently in the future.

“Being an Aboriginal and knowing the issues that Myles faced … we all grew up with the same trauma, the same PTSD,” Burns said. “We all face the same thing. And a lot of the inmates that are out there, a lot of the gang members that are out there, a lot of the homeless people that are out there face the same thing.

“There are a lot more ‘Myleses walking the streets. So, how are we going to help them, or identify them? How are we going to bring healing to those people? For me, that is the biggest thing. How do we heal our people through all of this?”

The inquest has heard from Sanderson’s parole officers from his time at Saskatchewan Penitentiary and on statutory release. All said he had risk factors and a history of violence but seemed to be improving. He was engaging with the programs and counselling available to him, becoming more open to asking for help, and even held down a job once he was out of prison.

Darryl Burns said he thinks some of the serious risk factors were ignored. Sanderson had a history of violence, including domestic violence, and had attacked members of his extended family before.

“The evidence supported that he would reoffend, given the chance, and now it seems like he was given the chance,” Burns said. “Throughout all this, the system didn’t fail Myles. The system seemed to support Myles. … The system failed the dead people.”

None of the parole officers who worked with Sanderson said they had seen any warning signs that he would go on a killing spree.

Burns gestured at a memorial table set up just outside the inquest room, where candles and tobacco are laid out before photos of the dead.

“There’s 10 people’s pictures on that table over there who would disagree,” he said.

“Their deaths should not mean nothing. Their deaths should not mean that there’s no changes made, in the ways things are looked at. Their deaths should mean something.”

“He was afraid to go back to jail”

Natasha Melanson was the final parole officer to supervise Sanderson.

In the time she knew him, he seemed to be doing well — holding down a job, getting counselling and taking programs, eager to engage in cultural activities, she testified. 

“He had a wealth of support at his hands that he was actually using, in the time that I knew him.”

She thought his likelihood of reintegrating back into the community rather than winding up back behind bars was increasing, but near the end of May 2022, Melanson said she got a call from Vanessa Burns, his ex-partner. He was not supposed to be in contact with her.

Melanson said Vanessa told her Sanderson had come to her apartment a few days before and asked to be let in; when she said no, he forced his way inside.

“There was a commotion,” Melanson said. “Stuff was thrown around; there was anger. The children were frightened. He did breach his no-contact order, in an aggressive manner.”

A warrant was issued for his arrest. He was told about it and advised to turn himself in, as he had done twice before, the inquest heard.

This time, he did not turn himself in.

Melanson told the inquest she got a text message from him about the active warrant on May 30.

“He was afraid to go back to jail, but he wanted to take responsibility and turn himself in,” she recalled.

She also got a phone call from him on June 1, she said.

“He called, and spoke at length about having some emotional difficulties about turning himself in and returning to the prison system. I did note that he was calm, not aggressive or disrespectful in his tone.”

He denied using alcohol or drugs, and didn’t say where he was. After that call, his phone was disconnected and she never heard from him again, Melanson said.

Later that month, after a tip indicating Sanderson may have returned to the Melfort area, Melanson said she contacted the local RCMP detachment.

“I made a phone call to the RCMP in Melfort to alert them that Sanderson may be within their area. They had noted that they had not had any contact with him … since before he had been to jail, but they would have their night shift check some of the residences that he had been at in the past.”

Though she was not happy with the situation — she was one of many people who had worked with Sanderson who were disappointed that he had breached his conditions and was now disappearing off their radar — she never imagined he would go on a killing spree, she testified.

“There was nothing leading up to this that would suggest he would be capable of what had happened.”

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).