Fears are high as Canadian police search for stabbing suspect

JAMES SMITH CREE FIRST NATION, Saskatchewan — Fears were raised Tuesday on a native reserve in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan after police warned the suspect in a fatal weekend stabbing may be nearby and officers surrounded a house with guns drawn.

Police later responded that it was a false alarm and determined the suspect was not in the community, but people remain nervous as his whereabouts are unknown and a province-wide alert is still in effect.

People on the James Smith Cree First Nation reserve were earlier told to stay inside. An Associated Press reporter saw people running and screaming as police closed roads.

The fugitive’s brother and another suspect, Damien Sanderson, was found dead Monday near the stabbing sites. Police are investigating whether Miles Sanderson killed his brother. The brothers are accused of killing 10 people and injuring 18.

Leaders of the James Smith Cree Nation, where most of the stabbings took place, blamed the killings on drug and alcohol abuse plaguing the community, which they say is a legacy of indigenous colonization.

James Smith Cree Nation resident Darryl Burns and his brother Iver Wayne Burns said their sister Gloria Lydia Burns was a first responder who was killed while responding to a call. Burns said his 62-year-old sister was on a crisis response team.

“She went to a house call and was involved in the violence,” he said. “She was there to help. She was a hero.

He blamed drugs and pointed to colonization for rampant drug and alcohol use on the reservations.

In this video image, Canadian law enforcement officers surround a residence on the James Smith Cree First Nation reserve in Saskatchewan, Canada, Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022, as they search for a suspect in a string of stabbings.

AP Photo/Robert Bumstead

“Three years ago we had a suicide here. My granddaughter and her boyfriend. Last year we had a double homicide. Now this year we have 10 more deaths and all because of drugs and alcohol,” Darryl Burns said.

Ivor Wayne Burns also blamed drugs for his sister’s death and said the suspected brothers should not be hated.

“We have to forgive the boys,” he said. “When you’re on hard drugs, when you’re on coke, and when you’re on heroin and crystal meth and those things, you’re not able to feel. You stab someone and think it’s funny. You stab them again and laugh.”

Blackmore said police were still establishing a motive, but the head of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations reiterated speculation that the stabbings may be drug-related.

“This is the devastation we face when harmful illegal drugs invade our communities and we demand that all authorities take their cues from chiefs and councils and their members to create safer and healthier communities for our people ” said Superintendent Bobby Cameron.

Blackmore said Miles Sanderson’s criminal record goes back years and includes violence.

He was released from prison in August 2021, but his release was then delayed in November because he lied about his ex-wife and children living with him. At a hearing in February, the board lifted the suspension while adding conditions limiting and monitoring contact with the woman and his children.

Public Safety Secretary Mendicino said he was told by the parole board that Miles Sanderson’s evaluation and subsequent release would be investigated.

“I want to know the reasons behind the decision and I want to know if mistakes were made in the process,” Mendicino said. “It should be an independent review.”

“I am extremely concerned about what happened here,” he said.

The stabbing was among the deadliest mass killings in Canada, where such crimes are less common than in the United States. The deadliest gun attack in Canadian history occurred in 2020, when a man disguised as a police officer shot people in their homes and set fires in the province of Nova Scotia, killing 22 people. In 2019, a man used a van to kill 10 pedestrians in Toronto.

Ruby Works stands for a photo before delivering flowers to the home of a victim identified by residents as Wes Peterson in Weldon, Saskatchewan, on Monday, Sept. 5, 2022.

Haywood Yu/The Canadian Press via AP

Fatal mass stabbings are less common than mass shootings, but they have occurred around the world. In 2014, 29 people were hacked and stabbed to death at a train station in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming. In 2016, a mass stabbing at a facility for the mentally disabled in Sagamihara, Japan, left 19 people dead. A year later, three men killed eight people in a drive-by and knife attack on London Bridge.

Saskatchewan police received their first call about a stabbing at 5:40 a.m. Sunday, and within minutes were aware of several more. In all, dead or injured people were found in 13 different locations on the sparsely populated reservation and in the city, Blackmore said. The James Smith Cree Nation is about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from Weldon.

Weldon residents have identified one of the dead as Wes Peterson, a retired widower who made his coffee every morning at the senior center. He loved gardening, picking berries, canning and making jam and pastries, William Works, 47, and his mother, Sharon Works, 64, recalled.

“He’d take the shirt off your back if he could,” said William Works, describing his neighbor as a “gentle old man” and “community first.”

Sharon Works was baffled: “I don’t understand why they would target someone like him anyway, because he was just a poor, helpless little guy, 100 pounds and soaking wet. And he could hardly breathe because he had asthma and emphysema and everyone was interested in him because he was like that. He took care of everyone else. And they were interested in him.

Evan Bray, police chief for the provincial capital of Regina, said earlier Monday that police believed Sanderson was in Regina, but said Tuesday they had received information that led them to believe he may no longer be in city.

“Even though we don’t know his whereabouts, we’re still searching not only in the city of Regina, but out in the country,” Bray said.

Gillis reported from Toronto

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