After tragic stabbings in Sask., First Nations leaders call for their own police force

·6 min read
James Smith Cree Nation Chief Wally Burns reacts after speaking at a news conference on Thursday, a day after the man accused of a stabbing rampage was arrested and later died. Burns was among those calling for a First Nations police service for his community at the conference. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
James Smith Cree Nation Chief Wally Burns reacts after speaking at a news conference on Thursday, a day after the man accused of a stabbing rampage was arrested and later died. Burns was among those calling for a First Nations police service for his community at the conference. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

Warning: This story contains distressing details

Local and provincial leaders are calling for more First Nations policing in Saskatchewan in the wake of the stabbing rampage in the province that captured national and international attention.

Ten people were killed and 18 wounded — not counting the two men accused — in the stabbings in the James Smith Cree Nation area and the nearby village of Weldon last Sunday, which also led to a days-long manhunt spanning a large swath of Saskatchewan.

It ended on Wednesday when Myles Sanderson, 32, the main suspect in the violent attacks, died after going into medical distress shortly after he was arrested. His brother Damien Sanderson, 31, who was also facing charges in the attacks, was found dead on Monday.

At a news conference Thursday, James Smith Cree Nation Chief Wally Burns said the community needs its own tribal justice system, including some form of police force.

"We have to make it loud and clear that we mean business. We got to protect our people," Burns said. "We got to protect them, because no people in Canada should be scared to go from here to there."

WATCH | First Nations leaders call for First Nations police service:

He envisions a police force that would work hand-in-hand with the RCMP, which currently serves the community. That would not only benefit James Smith but communities around the Cree nation too, the chief said.

Darryl Burns, whose sister Gloria Lydia Burns was among those killed in the attacks, said he fully supports having a police force in his home community.

"One of the things I always talk about with these murders that happened here in our community, they were spread out over lots of different periods of time," he said after Thursday's news conference at James Smith Cree Nation — a joint conference that included local Indigenous leaders along with representatives from the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, the RCMP and the provincial government.

"So if the cops responded at the first call, would some of these people still be alive?"

Karen Pauls/CBC
Karen Pauls/CBC

RCMP officers were first contacted about the stabbing rampage at 5:43 a.m. CST on Sunday, Sept. 4. Officers were sent out three minutes later and arrived at the first scene at 6:18 a.m, roughly 35 minutes after the call was first made.

Darryl Burns's concerns about response times were echoed at Thursday's conference by Prince Albert Grand Council Grand Chief Brian Hardlotte, who said it's a common sentiment in First Nations communities.

"A lot of the times [community] members make a call to some of the [RCMP] detachments, [but] their call goes all the way to Regina. Just imagine the response time on that," Hardlotte said.

"There are models out there where they have peacekeepers, they have community safety officers. Some communities just call them community security guards. These are models that work with the RCMP today to make the community safe."

Hardlotte committed to working with the communities that make up the Prince Albert Grand Council to devise community safety strategies, work he said was already underway.

Bryan Eneas/CBC
Bryan Eneas/CBC

People from James Smith Cree Nation gave Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe a medallion during Thursday's press conference.

He was asked if, by accepting the gift, he was showing he would honour his promises to support the Cree nation's calls to establish a First Nations police force in the community.

Moe said he would and added all levels of government —local, provincial and federal — need to be involved in those discussions.

Need to 'redouble our efforts': safety minister

In an interview with CBC News on Friday, the federal minister for public safety said steps have already taken by the Liberal government to address First Nations policing.

Marco Mendicino said more than $850 million, over a five-year period, was dedicated to supporting police and safety services in Indigenous communities in the 2021 federal budget.

That includes more than $43 million for co-developing legislation that would recognize First Nations policing as an essential service — work that will happen with local, regional and national First Nations groups, Mendicino said.

But the events of the past week show not enough has been done, he said.

"We've made some progress but this is hardly the time for patting ourselves on the back," the minister said. "I think we need to really redouble our efforts."

Bryan Eneas/CBC
Bryan Eneas/CBC

He said 13 virtual engagement sessions have already been held to help guide that work, and a first report — a "what we heard" document — would be published later this month.

Mendicino said he's eager to see work on First Nations policing done in order to prevent further tragedies, and is working with his ministerial counterparts from Indigenous Services to do that, while keeping in mind the needs of each individual community.

"We're at the table and we're going to pursue every possible pathway to ensure we deliver not only more Indigenous-led policing initiatives … but that we also make sure that it lands in a way that truly does reflect all those principles of reconciliation," he said.

Policing for First Nations by First Nations

Saskatchewan has one First Nations police service already.

The File Hills First Nations Police Service was formed in 2002 and serves five communities located in Treaty 4 in Saskatchewan territory: Okanese, Peepeekisis, Carry the Kettle, Star Blanket and Little Black Bear.

Const. Kelsey Starblanket Jr., from the Star Blanket Cree Nation, northeast of Regina, said he had wanted to be a police officer since he was four years old.

That's when he visited the RCMP Heritage Centre and saw himself in a red serge, and immediately knew his calling.

He started his career two years ago with File Hills First Nations Police Service.

Sam Samson/CBC
Sam Samson/CBC

"One of the advantages [of being an Indigenous officer] is that I know the people," he told CBC News on Friday.

"If I don't know them, it's easy for me to find out who they are or where they're from, just from talking with people I know. That rapport I built, it always helps me when I attend calls."

He believes the police service will expand and work in more communities, because it's what's needed: policing of First Nations by First Nations people.

Starblanket's sentiments were shared by File Hills police Chief Paul Avanthay, who said he feels public safety is a basic right every person in Canada should have, including First Nations people in their communities.

His police force offers more stability for communities than the RCMP, he said, which has "members who are transferring in, transferring out on a continual basis," adding he thinks the File Hills model could be replicated elsewhere.

"The model we're building is, our members are from these communities and they have that investment and that stake in these communities."

Support is available for anyone affected by the latest reports. 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. 

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.