WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
The coroner’s inquest into the mass stabbings that happened on James Smith Cree Nation in 2022 begins Monday.
Its purpose is to set the public record straight about what happened during the violent attacks and to prevent similar tragedies in the future. It’s also a chance to honour the victims.
Myles Sanderson, a community member, killed 11 people and seriously injured 17 others on Sept. 4, 2022. All of the victims were attacked on James Smith Cree Nation, except one elderly man who was killed at his home in the nearby village of Weldon.
Sanderson, 32, died in custody shortly after police arrested him on Sept. 7, 2022. His death meant there could not be a trial to offer insight into how and why the stabbings happened, so the Saskatchewan Coroners Service decided to run an inquest.
“I think it’s important that we hold an inquest so the public and the families and the people that live on James Smith can understand, really, what happened on that day,” said Clive Weighill, Saskatchewan’s chief coroner.
This is the longest and largest inquest ever run in Saskatchewan. It’s scheduled for Jan. 15 to Feb. 2 at the Kerry Vickar Centre in Melfort, Sask., a small city about 30 kilometres southeast of James Smith Cree Nation.
The inquest begins with jury selection on Monday at 10:00 a.m. CST. After that the first witnesses will be called.
About 32 witnesses are expected to give statements and share evidence. A jury of three Indigenous and three non-Indigenous people will take in the evidence and then be tasked with making recommendations at the end of the inquest.
While the recommendations are not binding, Weighill said most that come from inquests are put into place. It’s up to each agency, for example the RCMP, to consider them and then act. The recommendations will be posted online, as will the responses of the agencies that are identified as needing change.
Extensive details to be revealed
Weighill said the Coroners Service has worked closely with the RCMP, elders and community members in preparation for the inquest. The extensive details shared at the inquest could be retraumatizing and painful for people affected by the tragedy.
It will take police investigators days to walk the jury through what happened leading up to and during the Sept. 4, 2022, attacks.
Forensic pathologists will also explain how each victim died.
“There’s been mental health specialists working with the families for any emotional trauma.… There will be people at the inquest that will be there if anybody starts to get triggered,” Weighill said.
“We’ll also have elders there as well too, for people that would want more traditional healing.”
Sanderson’s actions leading up to the killings will also be discussed, as well the parole system. Grieving family members still have many questions about why Sanderson was at large in their community because at the time of the stabbings, Sanderson was wanted by police.
Sanderson had been released from prison on statutory release in August 2021, according to parole documents. Statutory release occurs when federal offenders have served two-thirds of a fixed-length sentence.
He had been serving a nearly five-year sentence for assault, robbery, mischief and uttering threats. Upon his release, Sanderson should have been under supervision. But a few months before the stabbings, he was declared to be “unlawfully at large.”
A separate inquest will be held to examine the circumstances leading to Sanderson’s in-custody death in Saskatoon on Feb. 26 to March 1.
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.