James Smith Cree Nation tragedy ‘could have been avoided’ says AFN national chief

The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations says the lack of First Nations policing and other justice services compounded the tragedy on James Smith Cree Nation back in 2022.

“This tragedy is a systemic failure of the police and the justice system,” Cindy Woodhouse of the Assembly of First Nations said at a news conference in Saskatoon on Thursday. “All the evidence presented throughout the [inquest] further demonstrate that if a First Nations police service had been equitably funded in the James Smith Cree Nation, this tragedy could have been avoided.”

Myles Sanderson, 32, killed 11 people and injured 17 others in James Smith and in Weldon on Sept. 4, 2022. Sanderson, who also killed his brother, died in police custody a few days after the rampage.

For the past two weeks, a six-member jury learned the details of what happened that day, including Sanderson’s time in prison and relationship with his former partner and family.

The jury and coroner made 29 recommendations, including one for the First Nation to establish a local police force.

The inquest heard that the Melfort RCMP detachment, 50 km away from James Smith, first received a report of a stabbing at 5:40 a.m. on the day of the attacks. Officers arrived at 6:18 a.m.

Since the stabbing rampage, leadership in James Smith Cree Nation has pushed for a local police force to be organized. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised in 2020 his Liberal government would bring forward a new First Nations policing law.

Woodhouse said the legislation remains stalled.

“We need to get to a table and start talking … right now we’re not,” she said.

Former public safety minister Marco Mendicino had said he would work around the clock to get the legislation tabled in the fall 2022, after the massacre, but later walked back the promise. Woodhouse said she has met with current Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc, but there’s been no movement on the file.

Jurisdiction and whether it should be the provinces or First Nations, remains the main point of contention, Woodhouse said at a news conference with chiefs from Saskatchewan.

Public Safety Canada did not provide a comment to the Canadian Press on Thursday.

“We are spinning our wheels over and over and over, and nothing is happening,” said Chief Wally Burns of James Smith Band, one of three communities that make up the First Nation.

“This is where we have to stop it.”

He said there was a lot of conversation with federal counterparts about First Nations-led policing following the killings. James Smith need boots on the ground soon, he said.

The national chief said she’s looking for $3.6 billion in the March federal budget to begin addressing some of the policing issues on First Nations.

Leadership in communities with Indigenous-led policing have long been raising concerns about chronic underfunding. As of October, there were 36 Indigenous police services across the country. Five are in Western Canada.

They are funded through the First Nations and Inuit Policing Program, which launched in 1991. In its expense-sharing model, Ottawa pays 52 per cent of the costs and the provinces or territories pay 48 per cent.

Last year, the Indigenous Police Chiefs of Ontario and the Quebec Association of First Nation and Inuit Police Directors filed separate human rights complaints against the federal government alleging systemic discrimination because of underfunding.

With files from Kelly Geraldine Malone – the Canadian Press

Contribute Button