Ceremony strengthens resilience, healing after tragedy on James Smith Cree Nation

Wednesday, August 23rd, 2023 9:36am


Image Caption

James Smith Cree Nation chiefs are joined by RCMP Assistant Commissioner Rhonda Blackmore and those blanketed for their service during and after last September’s tragedy where 11 people were killed in a stabbing spree.


“I am reminded that there was a time when the federal government banned ceremonies like the ones you will be celebrating in the days to come. I am sorry and apologize for that past.” —Terry Goertzen, acting Saskatchewan regional director for Indigenous Services Canada
By Shari Narine
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Resilience. Love. Gratitude. Healing. And lingering grief.

Those were the feelings conveyed Monday by the chiefs of the communities Chakastaypasin Band, Peter Chapman Band and James Smith Band, which comprise James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan.

“In the past year, I’ve been hearing the resilience of our First Nations in our community,” said Chakastaypasin Chief Calvin Sanderson, speaking at the opening ceremony of the third annual Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations’ Traditional Health Gathering.

Monday marked the first day of the health gathering, fittingly hosted by James Smith Cree Nation. Thousands of First Nations people are expected to gather in the community over the week.

It has been almost one year—on Sept. 4—since a stabbing spree took the lives of 11 people and injured 17 others in James Smith Cree Nation and the nearby village of Weldon.

Myles Sanderson, 32, was identified as the sole killer. He was apprehended by police following a four-day manhunt and died in police custody.

“I know we went through lots of grievance and how to be resilient and come back strong, and to carry on that flame for our relatives, especially the ones that were hurt in this tragedy,” said Chief Sanderson.

But that doesn’t mean grief and sadness aren’t still there.

“Each and every one of us lost family members that day,” said Peter Chapman Band Chief Robert Head. “All the membership here…all traumatized by the sights and the chaos and the devastation of that day.”

Customs, beliefs and traditions, said James Smith Band Chief Wally Burns, have seen a resurgence since that time and have made a difference.

Youth have been given traditional names and a youth camp was held in May. Different ceremonies have been brought into the community. Elders have been sought for their teachings and counselling.

“With the families that are here of the victims…I acknowledge you too as well with hope. Believe in yourself with prayers. Smudge. Ceremonies like this will help,” said Burns. Spiritual Elders and traditional healers are part of the four-day gathering.

Terry Goertzen, acting Saskatchewan regional director for Indigenous Services Canada, acknowledged the role the federal government has played in intergenerational trauma.

“I am reminded that there was a time when the federal government banned ceremonies like the ones you will be celebrating in the days to come,” said Goertzen. “I am sorry and apologize for that past. These policies…of the federal government have been very harmful because we know and you know…that these ceremonies are so important for your journey of healing.”

Last November, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $62.5 million over six years would go to the James Smith Cree Nation. That funding includes $42.5 million for a new wellness centre.

Assistant Commissioner Rhonda Blackmore, commanding officer of the Saskatchewan RCMP, said that almost a year after the “unthinkable tragedy,” the health gathering was a way to remember James Smith Cree Nation not as “a place of tragedy but a place of hope and a place of healing and a place of positivity for the future.”

The RCMP and other first responders, including STARS Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan Health Authority, medical personnel, volunteers, businesses, governments, and more were recognized for their roles in helping during and after the Sept. 4 tragedy.

Many were wrapped with star blankets.

A table of RCMP officers rose to shake the hands of the three chiefs.

“I understand what our responders go through, seeing that in that Ground Zero... So I’ve got to commend our response team. Also, our members that participated in that, that day, that morning,” said Chief Sanderson.

RCMP have presented a partial timeline of Myles Sanderson’s killing spree, which included 42 crime scenes and more than 200 witness interviews. However, some information was omitted in order to not interfere with two pending inquests by the Saskatchewan Coroners Service. Separate inquests will occur, one in James Smith Cree Nation and the other in Weldon.

According to a February statement from the Saskatchewan Justice and Attorney General, the inquests have been tentatively scheduled for early January 2024.

Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.