Brother describes 66-year-old veteran killed in Saskatchewan stabbings as 'always smiling'

·6 min read
Orlen Burns holds a photo of his brother, Earl Burns, about to compete in a rodeo. The brothers entered rodeos, played hockey and hunted together. (Sam Samson/CBC - image credit)
Orlen Burns holds a photo of his brother, Earl Burns, about to compete in a rodeo. The brothers entered rodeos, played hockey and hunted together. (Sam Samson/CBC - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Orlen Burns picks up a photo of his late brother, Earl Burns. There are several on the table, but this one is Orlen's favourite of the bunch.

It shows a young Earl about to compete at a rodeo — clutching the reins on a horse that's ready to try and buck him off.

"He was always smiling," said Orlen. "Always smiling, no matter what."

There was a wake for Earl on Tuesday. Family and friends ate soup and baked goods while they told stories of Earl and looked at his photos.

Earl was one of 10 people violently killed on Sept. 4 during a stabbing rampage — Saskatchewan's deadliest mass killing.

The 66-year-old veteran was from James Smith Cree Nation, where the violence started early in the morning.

Myles Sanderson, 32, the main suspect in the violent attacks on the Cree nation and nearby community of Weldon, Sask., died after going into medical distress shortly after he was arrested last Wednesday. The Saskatoon Police Service is investigating Sanderson's death and will be supervised by the Saskatchewan serious incident response team.

His brother Damien Sanderson, 31, who was also facing charges in the attacks, was found dead in a heavily grassed area of the James Smith Cree Nation two days after the violence.

Saskatchewan First Nations Veterans Association/Facebook
Saskatchewan First Nations Veterans Association/Facebook

Orlen says a family member called him the morning of the attacks to say Earl was dead.

The entire family lives in James Smith Cree Nation, so Orlen got in his truck and drove to Earl's house to check on him.

On the way, he saw a school bus in a ditch with the motor running — the same bus Earl used to bring kids to school.

Orlen says he ignored it at first and continued, but when no one answered at Earl's house, Orlen went back to check on the bus. At that point, it was around 7:30 a.m. CST.

"I went to the bus, and I could see him lying on the floor. He was already dead when I went in the bus. He was lying in his own blood," said Orlen.

"I started crying. I burst out in tears."

Orlen says he believes his brother was stabbed in his own home, then got in the bus to chase after the accused.

"That's where he took his last breath," said Orlen.

"At the top of a hill. The bus rolled down, and that's where he died."

Orlen says he and his family told police, who were already dealing with another scene in the community. RCMP say there were 13 different total crime scenes.

Orlen says his father, sister and two other brothers found out about Earl shortly after that.

"They lost it," he said.

Orlen says he and his brother were close. The children were forced to go to a residential school near Duck Lake, Sask., as children. Orlen's favourite memories are competing in rodeos, playing hockey and soccer together. The two hunted together, as well.

"He was a pretty good shot, for a guy in the army," Orlen said with a smile.

Community support nearby

Before Tuesday's wake, Orlen and others went to a vigil in Prince Albert, organized by the Prince Albert Grand Council. About 200 people showed up Tuesday evening to light candles, listen to speeches from about a dozen chiefs, and sing Stand By Me.

"This is a support system that needs to be seen around the world, and especially the people in James Smith and Weldon," said Sheryl Kimbley, the event organizer.

"We want to always make sure they know when the story dims — when it's starting to be lost to the world — we will always keep our light on."

Sam Samson/CBC
Sam Samson/CBC

Orlen said the vigil helped him.

"It was good. It calmed me. Because I was pretty angry when I found out he was murdered," he said.

"We wanted to go look for them, but the police didn't want us out there. My wife made me stay home. I was walking around with my gun in the house, because he wasn't caught yet."

Sam Samson/CBC
Sam Samson/CBC

Federal minister visits James Smith Cree Nation

Other families continue to hold funerals.

The services for Bonnie Burns and Gregory Burns, a mother and son, were supposed to be Tuesday. But when Bonnie's partner, Brian (Buggy) Burns, realized another one of their sons had a birthday that day, he changed it. The community threw a birthday party that day instead, according to Buggy.

The community also hosted a guest Tuesday. Federal Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said she attended the funeral of Lydia Gloria Burns, 61, another victim of the stabbing rampage.

Hajdu called Lydia a "pillar of the community," and noted she was an outreach worker who worked with people who struggled with substances.

"It really struck me that the community had lost a treasure," Hajdu said.

"It was really moving to see the number of young men that really are going to miss her and are going to feel that sense of loss of not having that special person that they can talk to and that will help them in those times of struggle."

Justin Tang/Canadian Press
Justin Tang/Canadian Press

Hajdu said she also spoke with community and regional leaders on Tuesday about the vision they have for James Smith Cree Nation, including listening to their plans around First Nations policing and addictions treatment services.

"Everybody wants to move quickly, but now what we need to do is actually get through these next few days — which are going to be really, really tough — and start to put on paper what that looks like for the community moving forward," she said.

Hajdu said they talked about the importance of having an enforcement component to community policing, but also doing work around crime prevention and helping people feel a sense of safety.

Local leaders talked about a vision where they might have community patrolling or community safety officers, she said.

Hajdu said they also discussed urgent and emergency addiction treatment services, as well as longer-term treatment — but also the supports that need to be in place when people come out of treatment.

Indigenous Services has said Ottawa will help the community with things like some funeral costs, hotels and food for people who were displaced due to the violence, and security in James Smith.

Laying a brother and best friend to rest

Orlen says the anger is gone now.

"Still a little bit ticked off he got the easy way out," Orlen said of Myles Sanderson.

For now, he's focused on getting through the next few days. On Wednesday, Earl's body will be sent back to James Smith Cree Nation for his funeral Saturday morning.

Orlen remembers speaking with his brother recently at their father's place. Earl was with his two grandsons on quads.

It was a nice visit, Orlen said. The last one they would have together.

"He was a good friend. My best friend."