Chief of James Smith says community is still healing months after attack

Wally Burns says he’s still working toward a self-administered police service.

Almost nine months after a mass stabbing in James Smith Cree Nation rocked Saskatchewan and the rest of Canada, Chief Wally Burns says they’re still healing.

Burns was in Winnipeg to talk about self-administered policing at an Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs conference.

In September 2021, 11 people died during a stabbing spree.

“A lot of people’s lives changed since September and I know that we’re slowly rebuilding our lives,” he told APTN News. “But sometimes we do have the thoughts of our missed loved ones that did pass on.”

One of Burns’ requests in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy was a call for a self-administered police service in James Smith Cree Nation.

On Sept. 4, the day of the tragedy, more than 40 minutes passed from the initial calls for help to the arrival of Melfort RCMP.

“Training our people is the next step, also having that building for our people. Having our own self-administered policing would put a lot (of people) at ease, especially during the tragedy in James Smith,” Burns said.  “I think they’re waiting for the moment we do have our own policing.”

A month after the tragedy, both federal and provincial public safety ministers pledged to work collaboratively with the Prince Albert Grand Council (PAGC) and its 28 member communities, which includes James Smith, to create new policing services.

Burns has met with First Nations who are already operating a successful police service and he’s learned that there are funding disparities between what big city services receive and what is given to First Nations led services.

“That’s our first question, ‘Well, how do you guys wing this with what you have?’ And they’re underfunded yet.”

Burns said one of the big unknowns, is how to deal with drug dealers and gangs.

“That’s one of the things we’re going to face head on in regards to chasing them out of our community.  And I know it’s going to be a huge factor, but you know, I’d rather have our kids live in harmony rather than the hurt and pain that comes with drugs,” Burns said.

“I’d rather look at the scenario where the safety of our community members, safety of our elders, our safety of our youth, that’s one of the objectives that we took as a Council.”

Burns said he hopes the tragedy showed Canada it can no longer turn a blind eye to what is afflicting First Nations.

Sanderson, the 32-year-old accused in the attacks, was on statutory release when on Sept. 4, 2022, he went on a stabbing spree killing 11 and injuring another 18. According to the RCMP, Sanderson was selling drugs and causing havoc in the community in the days leading up to the event.

Sanderson, who also alleged to have killed his brother, died shortly after being taken into police custody.

Burns doesn’t want something like the James Smith tragedy happening again.

“I pray not.  It’s very hard on a person and on a community, and especially the loved ones that do lose a person.  I’m still dealing with my loss of my parents.  It’s been a while, but I still have my moments.  The only way I feel comfort is going back into ceremony.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story reported that Chief Wally Burns’ parents had been killed in the attack. That was an error. APTN apologizes to chief Burns and his family for the error.

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