WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
A dozen emergency alerts blared on cellphones and radios across the province immediately after the stabbing massacre on James Smith Cree Nation and during the manhunt for the killer.
Myles Sanderson was on the run from police for three days after killing 11 and seriously injuring 17 others during the early morning hours of Sept. 4, 2022. The police used emergency alerts to warn the public about Sanderson, who was deemed armed, dangerous and at-large.
A civilian RCMP employee testified about those alerts at the inquest into the deaths Friday. A total of 12 alerts were issued from Sept. 4 to 7, 2022, with one of them being a cancellation after Sanderson was apprehended, according to Mandy Maier, who works with the RCMP’s strategic communications department.
The coroner’s inquest began on Monday in Melfort — a small city about 30 kilometres southeast of James Smith Cree Nation — and is scheduled to continue until Feb. 2. Jury members are listening to the evidence and will be tasked with providing recommendations about changes that people can make to prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future.
The first 911 call from James Smith Cree Nation came at 5:40 a.m. CST. RCMP arrived on scene at 6:18 a.m. The person with the authority to issue an emergency alert was called at 6:26 a.m., and the first public emergency alert was issued at 7:57 a.m., the inquest heard.
Maier noted that a photo labelled as Myles Sanderson sent as part of the first alert was incorrect. She said a correction was issued in an alert about two hours later, shortly before 10:00 a.m., and that the incorrect photo was removed from RCMP’s website as soon as possible.
Lawyer Keith Brown, who is representing James Smith Cree Nation, asked Maier if the communications team confirmed the photo with the nation prior to issuing the emergency alert. She said they did not, adding that the situation was fluid and police were using the information they had at the time.
“That photograph specifically, the same speckling of the individual, the same community, there was 40 pounds difference but the height was the same. There was a human error made.”
“Would you agree that speed has to be balanced with accuracy?” Brown asked.
“Correct,” Maier said.
The office did not have protocols to speak with First Nations communities when issuing photos of their members. Brown asked if the RCMP communications team has since updated its policies on identifying people before sharing a photo.
“Given a human error, that mindfulness is something that we live with as emergency alert issuers and is something that we are mindful of moving forward,” Maier said.
Sanderson died in police custody shortly after his arrest on Sept. 7, 2022. A separate inquest is scheduled to examine the circumstances surrounding his death.
This coroner’s inquest began on Monday and is scheduled to run for three weeks. So far, multiple police officers have testified about the tragic timeline of events leading up to and during the mass casualty event. The testimony has often been difficult, emotional and shared through tears.
Myles Sanderson’s former common-law partner Vanessa Burns was called to testify about the days leading up to the attacks and their relationship — specifically the extensive, violent and ongoing abuse that she suffered because of him. Skye Sanderson also testified at the inquest late Thursday. She was married to Damien Sanderson, Myles Sanderson’s brother and first homicide victim. She also lost her dad, Christian Head, in the stabbings.
Skye said Damien was also physically abusive with her when he was using substances. She said she suffered extensive physical injuries with lasting damage. However, she felt he was different from his brother, Myles.
“[Myles] was evil. I just seen right through him. I didn’t like when he came around. I feared him,’ she said. “He didn’t fool me.”
She said Damien was, at times, also fearful of Myles.She said Damien and Myles had a chilling conversation about two weeks before the mass stabbings.
After Damien separated from Myles, he crawled into bed, held Skye close and said, “I’m scared.”
“I kind of think my brother’s the devil or something,” Damien told Skye, according to her testimony.
“He said I want to fucking kill Vanessa and when I do, I’m going to kill 10 others.”
Support is available for people affected by this tragedy. The Hope for Wellness hotline offers immediate help to Indigenous people across Canada. Mental health counselling and crisis support is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.
You can talk to a mental health professional via Wellness Together Canada by calling 1-866-585-0445 or text WELLNESS to 686868 for youth or 741741 for adults. It is free and confidential.
Talking Stick is a Saskatchewan-based free anonymous chat platform that connects people seeking emotional support to a trained Indigenous peer advocate 24/7.