An inquest into one of Canada’s worst mass killings is drawing to a close.
On Monday, after over two weeks of graphic and emotional testimony, the last of 30 witnesses was called to the stand.
Soon, the jury examining the killing of 11 people in the communities of James Smith Cree Nation and Weldon will be charged with determining the cause of their deaths and making recommendations to prevent future violence.
For the jury, there’s no question how they died. All 11 victims were stabbed by Myles Sanderson in the early morning hours of Sept. 4, 2022.
The killings initiated a three-day manhunt that ended with Sanderson collapsing almost immediately after he was taken into police custody. He died in hospital a short time later.
The whole province remembers the jarring public alerts issued directly to their phones after the search for Sanderson began, and the initial chaos and confusion around how many people were involved in the killings and where they might be.
To close proceedings, RCMP Sgt. Evan Anderson described the days leading up to Sanderson’s arrest and death. His presentation was not entered into evidence but was meant to serve as a lead-in into the upcoming inquest into Sanderson’s death in police custody, which starts Feb. 26 in Saskatoon.
“As Myles Sanderson was in RCMP custody at the time of his passing and in accordance with RCMP policy and to ensure transparency, the death investigation was turned over to the Saskatoon Police Service,” said Anderson. Until recently in Saskatchewan, investigations into serious police-involved incidents were conducted by another police service rather than a separate agency.
What the families of Sanderson’s victims and the leadership of James Smith say they’re waiting to hear from the jury are recommendations on how to prevent future violence, tackle the drug trade, better monitor violent offenders out on supervised release and catch those who breach their conditions.
It’s not an easy task for a panel of six ordinary citizens.
There’s been no shortage of suggestions from the witnesses over the last two weeks. When prompted, many offered some ideas, with the notable exception of most witnesses from the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC).
The inquest heard from multiple witnesses that Sanderson showed some improvements during his time in custody. He was described as a typical inmate.
Elder Harvey Knight, who facilitates cultural programs at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary, said the one thing he noted about Sanderson was a “child-like demeanour.”
“When he talked about his past, was like, in a way that a child would talk about his past,” said Knight.
When out on statutory release, the inquest heard he quickly unravelled.
On Monday, elder and corrections worker Geraldine Arcand was markedly open compared to her other CSC colleagues.
Arcand said it’s hard for inmates to hold onto what they’ve learned when they’re in the real world.
“I think aftercare is very important,” said Arcand.
“When they are released, that they have a place to go to and they have people there that can be supportive, and make sure that they follow through with what they’ve been doing, because it’s different. When you’re in the institution, everything is there for you.”
Darryl Burns, whose sister Lydia Gloria Burns was Sanderson’s tenth victim, told Arcand it seemed like there was no one worker keeping track of Sanderson over the course of his time in custody.
“There’s been no continuation of people in his life. Everyone had done their job, and then he moved on to the next one,” said Burns.
Arcand agreed more consistency and collaboration between the teams working with someone inside and outside the institution would be beneficial for an offender.
Knight told the inquest there weren’t enough elders working in the penitentiary to effectively deliver their vital cultural programming to the high number of Indigenous inmates.
He suggested recruiting more elders to help manage the workload.
“To encourage elders, practicing elders to come and work with us, because most of the people in there right now are our people,” said Knight.
Drug and alcohol use was the most volatile force in Sanderson’s life, and usually went hand-in-hand with his violence, the inquest heard.
Knight said better addiction support in the correctional system would make a difference in the lives of many offenders.
Coroner’s counsel Tim Hawryluk said the jury could take up to three days to deliver its findings, given the sheer number of exhibits entered into evidence.