September 4, 2022 is a date seen on grave markers in the James Smith Cree Nation cemetery again and again. It’s on side-by-side crosses belonging to Bonnie and Gregory Burns – mother and son. The date is on Thomas Burns’ and his mother Carol’s grave markers too. On these crosses, someone has placed Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens hats. The two were avid hockey fans.
“(Almost) 16 months past the tragedy, (Nation members) just started to open up and move into the beginning part of the healing process” said Peter Chapman Band Chief Robert Head one of the three communities that call James Smith Cree Nation home.
Ten of 11 people murdered on that September day were members of these communities, which include the James Smith and Chakastaypasin Band. Wesley Peterson, a 78-year-old man from Weldon, Saskatchewan was killed as well. The events leading up to the deaths, how each person died and where each person was killed will be examined this week at a Coroner’s Inquest set to begin Monday in Melfort, Saskatchewan.
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A second inquest into the death of Myles Sanderson — the man accused in the killings — is set for later this year. Sanderson died while in police custody shortly after his arrest.
“It’s going to re-trigger a lot of trauma,” said James Smith Band Chief Wally Burns.
Burns says the communities have been preparing by holding ceremonies. Elders and trauma counsellors have also been on-hand to offer support, especially for the families that were shown evidence collected by the RCMP and Coroner’s office privately before the inquest began.
“Every family that went through that process left in tears because it brought back that day of Sept. 4,” Chief Head said.
Community leaders say they aren’t sure if the inquest will be worth the pain.
“Systemic racism within institutions of Canada, the parole board, the justice system, the RCMP… these are some of the the things that we were hoping would be addressed through an inquiry but within the inquest, it’s sort of limited in scope,” says Head. “We’re hoping that (at least) news will spread across the country that the parole system needs to be fixed. Myles was released and the first nation wasn’t given notice. The justice system needs addressing and its needs to be culturally appropriate for our membership that are in the system.”
The parole board and Correctional Service Canada launched the investigation into Sanderson’s release from prison soon after the killings.
The parole board said the findings would be released last fall, but now says they will not be made public until after the inquest. The province say witnesses from the parole board and correctional service are scheduled to provide evidence at the inquest.
It is scheduled to last for at least two weeks.
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