As families gather to bury their dead, James Smith Cree Nation struggles to heal

Families of those slain in a recent stabbing rampage on James Smith Cree Nation will gather this week to bury their loved ones. For the wider community, the hard work of healing has just begun.

Chief Robert Head has called for funding to build a healing centre to address long-term trauma

Chief Robert Head of Peter Chapman First Nation, one of three bands that make up James Smith Cree Nation, smiles with his five-year-old grandchildren Lance McLean and Brielle Burns. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

As most people in James Smith Cree Nation were still sleeping, violence erupted. 

The killings began in homes around the northern part of the community before sunrise — at least three attacks, followed by five more in the central village and two in the south, said Chief Robert Head, tracing the path with his hand across a map on the wall of his office.

The survivors gathered at the band office and medical clinic, where they were triaged. Those most badly injured were sent by helicopter to hospitals, while the others were sent by ambulance.

Chief Head stayed in the office until 1 a.m. Monday, Sept. 5, helping the RCMP, emergency responders and the coroner's office gather information.

By then he knew the grim toll — nine of his community members were dead, along with one resident from nearby Weldon, Sask. Another 18 were left injured.

Now the hard work of healing begins, he said.

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"It's very tragic and very sad," said Head, chief of Peter Chapman First Nation, one of the three bands that make up James Smith Cree Nation.

"It's going to be a long process for each of these families because they're very heartbroken."

Community members have been gathering at the James Smith Cree Nation Band Office and Margaret Turner Health Clinic since the stabbing rampage for emergency meetings and support. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

That process is starting slowly as families gather this week to put their loved ones to rest and take part in traditional ceremonies. But Head said the community needs long-term support to break the cycle of pain.

He's pushing for funding to build a healing centre to address long-term trauma and provide spiritual support to young people from elders.

"The federal government and possibly the provincial government should be behind this because this is unprecedented," Head said during an interview with CBC News.

"This is like the worst tragedy in First Nations country all across Canada."

Generations affected

It's also personal.

In this tight-knit community of approximately 3,700 band members — 1,800 of whom live on reserve — no one was left untouched by the tragedy.

Head's cousin Lana Head, 49, was killed, along with her 54-year-old partner Christian Head. 

He said he remembers her as a loving person with lots of friends who never got angry or had an unkind word for anyone.

"Lana was a beautiful person," Head said. "We're going to miss her very much."

Lana Head, 49, was killed along with her partner Christian Head, 54, during the stabbing rampage on Sept. 4 in James Smith Cree Nation. Together, they leave behind 10 children. (Submitted by RCMP)

Christian, he said, was an avid outdoorsman who participated in all community events from sport days to powwows. 

"He just did so much for the reserve as a whole," Head said.

Together, they leave behind 10 children, many of whom have kids of their own, Head said.

"I'm really hurting to see my grandchildren without a mother now," said Elder Ron Paul of James Smith Cree Nation, grandfather of Lana's children.

"I was angry, but ... I have to forgive."

Chief Wilton Littlechild of Maskwacis, Alta. said that when he got the news, he was driving. He had to pull over.

"It's a real mixed emotion," Littlechild told CBC News. "One of shock. You wonder how and why it happened."

Chief Wilton Littlechild of Maskwacis, a former commissioner with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, sees a link between the tragedy and residential schools. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Littlechild, a former commissioner with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said that as he thought about it more, he became convinced there must be some link back to the residential school experience.

"If you look at what's behind each individual's life choices ... I'm sure you can trace it back to residential school history," he said.

"If their parents didn't go and they were impacted directly as children, there's still that intergenerational trauma after for those that didn't go. So it brings up to my mind a lot of questions."

'Those kids are not going to be without'

Parole Board documents shed some light on prime suspect Myles Sanderson's upbringing. Shuffled from home to home. Growing up with physical abuse and domestic violence.

He started cocaine at age 14 before turning to crystal meth, the documents show.

Large tents set up for funerals in James Smith Cree Nation illustrate the immensity of the community's loss. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Chief Head, a survivor of the former St. Michael's (Duck Lake) Indian Residential School, said he's all too familiar with the way some people numb the pain with alcohol and drugs.

He said he entered a treatment centre about 18 years ago to put alcoholism behind him and start a healthier life leading his community.

"I would say upwards of 80 per cent of us have relatives who are from Indian residential school experiences," Head said.

"It's a really big problem because they inherited all of that trauma."

Although the community has the Sakwatamo Lodge for addictions treatment, he said, there is no long-term support for people with crystal meth addictions.

"I can't believe how fast it crept into our First Nations and it took control of all of our young people that have tried it," Head said.

"I think if we were able to address crystal meth in our community, we should be able to deal with all of the problems that we're facing right now."

WATCH | Communities near James Smith Cree Nation show their support: 

Outpouring of support for James Smith Cree Nation after tragedy

1 year ago
Duration 2:00
As James Smith Cree Nation holds funerals for the victims of the horrific stabbings, people from surrounding Saskatchewan communities are coming together to support them during their time of need.

The federal government hasn't promised any funding for a new detox or healing centre, but Indigenous Services Canada told CBC News the department is providing mental health counselling and support for funeral costs.

More than anything, Head said, the community has to make sure it takes care of its young people. Some of them witnessed the attacks themselves.

"All the kids are very heartbroken but they're going to get through it," he said.

"Those kids are not going to be without. Somebody will be there for them."


Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.