Crime

In Canada’s bucolic prairie region, a mass stabbing shocks the country

The knife attacks at the James Smith Cree Nation and a nearby village called Weldon were one of the worst mass killings in recent memory, and they reverberated across Canada.

Police investigate a house where neighbors say one man was stabbed to death in Weldon, Saskatchewan, Canada, on Sept. 5, 2022. Amber Bracken / The New York Times


WELDON, Saskatchewan — The horror began at 5:40 a.m. on Sunday, when police received a report of a stabbing on a rural Indigenous reserve in the western Canadian province of Saskatchewan. By the time the rampage was over, hours later, police said that 10 people were dead and 18 wounded — some apparently chosen at random — in a killing spree that has shaken the country.

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One of the two suspects in the mass killings, Damien Sanderson, was found dead Monday in a grassy area near a house being investigated as part of the attacks on the Cree Nation reserve, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said. They said his injuries did not appear to be self-inflicted.

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Police said a search was still underway for his brother Myles Sanderson, who may also have been injured and may seek medical attention. They said that Myles Sanderson had a lengthy criminal record, and that the public should be vigilant.

Police said they were investigating how Damien Sanderson had died, including whether his brother had killed him.

While details about the men and their motive remained murky, a Saskatchewan Crime Stoppers notice showed that Myles Sanderson had been wanted by police before Sunday’s attacks.

In a country that prides itself on its civility, the knife attacks at the James Smith Cree Nation and a nearby village called Weldon were one of the worst mass killings in recent memory, and they reverberated across Canada.

“It hurts, it hurts,” said Ivor Wayne Burns, who lives on the reserve and said his 61-year-old sister, Gloria Lydia Burns, was among the dead.

In Weldon, a sleepy farming village near the 27-square-mile Cree Nation reservation, some residents said they had hidden in their homes after learning of the attack and had locked their doors Sunday night for the first time ever.

Canada’s bucolic prairie region is known for its rolling landscapes and farming industry. But on Monday, residents of Saskatchewan, with 1.2 million people, woke up to find their province under a global spotlight. And with both suspects still on the loose then, the province was on edge.

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“I was terrified to go to sleep last night,” said Ruby Works, a resident of Weldon, who said a close friend, an older man who was a bird lover, had been killed in the attack. Works, 42, said she was out looking for her cat Sunday when a police officer warned her to go inside.

In Weldon, a community of 160 people that is dominated by two towering grain elevators, residents said anxiety, grief and fear had spread following the attack. About half of the population in the town of less than 1 square mile is older than 60.

Residents said the town, peppered with dirt roads and bungalows, was the kind of place where everyone knows one another.

“Last night, I locked my doors for the first time, but it was only because my 12-year-old asked me to,” said a resident, April Audette, referring to her daughter.

Ivor Wayne Burns, who said he is related to the suspects, said, “Right now there’s chaos, there’s total chaos.”

His sister, who worked for a community crisis response team, was found lying on a driveway with two other victims, he said.

Another brother, Darryl Burns, who also lives on the reserve, said Gloria Lydia Burns had raised her four nephews after their mother died.

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“That’s the kind of person that she was,” he said. “For her to go into a situation like this where she was helping people, even though it cost her life — that’s who she was. She would do anything to help anybody.”

The attack had particular resonance in Indigenous communities in a country that has been grappling with violence and systemic discrimination against Indigenous people.

The issue has received heightened attention and has become a source of national reckoning in recent years, in part because of grim new discoveries like the one last year of graves of children at a former residential school in British Columbia. For decades Indigenous children were forced to attend the church-run schools, where they were the victims of horrific physical and sexual abuse. Many died at the schools.

Across the country, as most Canadians took Monday off for Labor Day, news broadcasts were dominated by headlines about the killings. “Saskatchewan Mass Murder” said a red banner on the television news report from the CBC, the national broadcaster. Many were asking: How could this happen here — and why?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, in a brief address Monday afternoon, said he was “shocked and devastated by the horrific attacks.” He said the flags on Ottawa’s Peace Tower and at all federal buildings in Saskatchewan were at half-staff.

“Sadly, over these past years, tragedies like these have become all too commonplace,” Trudeau said. “Saskatchewanians and Canadians will do what we always do in times of difficulty and anguish. We’ll be there for each other, be there for our neighbors, lean on each other, help grieve and help heal.”

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Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations in Saskatchewan, called on authorities to “create safer and healthier communities for our people.”

“Our hearts break for all those impacted,” he said.

As dozens of police officers patrolled communities and combed 13 crime scenes for evidence, Canadian authorities advised residents in the James Smith Cree Nation and Weldon to shelter at home. They expanded the search almost 200 miles south to Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan province, where thousands had gathered Sunday for a Labor Day football game.

Before announcing that Damien Sanderson was dead, police had warned that the attackers were likely to be hiding in Regina.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police also said in a statement that the two men had been charged with first-degree attempted murder and breaking and entering.

In total, 28 people were stabbed. Some of the victims were taken by helicopter to Royal University Hospital, the province’s main trauma center, in Saskatoon.

The Indigenous community in Saskatchewan has proud and deep roots in the area, stretching back thousands of years. The area was historically an important region to hunt bison, according to a city of Regina website. The James Smith Cree Nation has 3,412 members, with nearly 2,000 living on its reserve, according to its website; there are a total of about 175,000 Indigenous residents in the province.

In Weldon, residents commiserated with one another as two officers in white forensic suits went through the home of the older victim whom Works said she knew. Residents said he was a well-known face in the small community who had campaigned to prevent trees in the area from being cut down.

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“This man did not deserve to die like this,” said Works, recalling how she would help him with his shopping and lift heavy bags of kitty litter from his car. “He was a kindhearted man. He would take the shirt off his back and give it to you.”

With helicopters flying overhead and police searching through the town, Works’ aunt, Sharon Works, 64, said she and her son had been fielding calls from friends and neighbors who knew some of the victims.

In Regina, some residents ignored the warnings to shelter and stuck to their social plans.

Along Arcola Avenue, crowds turned out for an annual Labor Day classic car show, a fundraising event for a local food bank.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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