Media Analysis: A shift in priority
Did we forget James Smith Cree Nation?
On September 4, everyone in Saskatchewan learned the name James Smith Cree Nation (JSCN), and a few days later it was overshadowed by the death of only one woman who died at peace in her home.
JSCN is located about 200 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon. It has a population of approximately 2,500 people. On that September morning, JSCN became ground zero to one of the worst mass-killings in Canadian history. Around 6 a.m., the RCMP was notified of multiple stabbings on the reserve. Shortly afterward, similar calls came from a settler village named Weldon, only 25 kilometres from JSCN. A couple hours later, the RCMP declared a civil emergency for the whole of Saskatchewan. The suspects had access to a vehicle. By noon, they were believed to be in Regina.
The suspects were two brothers: Damien and Myles Sanderson. It is alleged by the RCMP that Myles, 32, committed all the murders. Damien, 31, acted as an accomplice – a reluctant accomplice, his family claims – but his role in the killing spree is still unclear.
On September 5, Damien was found dead in a field on JSCN. It is likely that he never left the reserve. Damien appeared to have died from wounds that were not self-inflicted. In other words, he may have been murdered too. On September 7, Myles was found driving north of Saskatoon. Police arrested him, but soon after he died in custody. The cause of death appears to have been a drug overdose, but it is still inconclusive.
Myles Sanderson is accused of killing 10 people and injuring 18 more. There were 13 crime scenes in total. All of the victims except one were from JSCN. The one exception was a male victim who lived in Weldon.
Myles Sanderson had a long history of violence, crime, and substance abuse. In total, Sanderson had 59 convictions for assault, assault with a weapon, assaulting a police officer, uttering threats, and robbery. Sanderson’s parole documents indicate that he began abusing drugs and alcohol in his early teens. The parole documents further claim that Sanderson became rageful, violent, and erratic when under the influence of alcohol and drugs. He also had a significant history of domestic abuse, especially toward his common-law spouse, Vanessa Burns.
In an interview with Damien Sanderson’s wife, Skye Sanderson, she claimed that Damien frequently felt intimidated and coerced by his brother, Myles. In the months prior to the murder spree, both Damien and Skye were thinking of seeking help for their own drug and alcohol abuse. But, when Myles began turning up at Damien’s house on JSCN this summer, the brothers began another cycle of abuse in their relationship. They began abusing cocaine and crack together. Their conditions quickly deteriorated, with Myles becoming increasingly erratic, threatening, and violent.
The motive for the mass-killing is still ambiguous. We may never know. Perhaps the motive is itself unknowable. Myles Sanderson was clearly a deeply troubled man. Judging by reports from those who knew him, and his persistent alcohol and drug abuse, it seems that Sanderson’s mental health was always in very bad condition.
Skye Sanderson claims that the brothers had been on a drug and alcohol binge before the murders began. Perhaps Myles Sanderson’s mind had become fragmented, disorganized, and full of blind rage. The motive may remain unclear, but the context of this tragedy is readily apparent.
In an interview with Global News, Skye Sanderson stated she contacted the RCMP the day before the murders began. She told the RCMP that Myles and Damien were drunk and high, and that they had stolen her car. She stated that the only way to prevent the brothers from doing something “stupid” was to put them under arrest for the time being. The RCMP located Skye’s car, but they didn’t find the brothers – until it was too late.
The RCMP were warned about the brothers. Myles was also a fugitive. He had broken his parole months before and he had multiple warrants out for his arrest. Myles had a long history of violence and substance abuse. Specifically, he had a long history of domestic abuse. In fact, Sanderson spent two years in jail for stabbing his father-in-law in 2015.
Remember that domestic abuse is a strong predictor for future violence. The signs were there. The writing was on the wall. Of course, this could have been prevented. But this calamity was the culmination of many smaller tragedies: the mental health crisis, failure of law enforcement, intergenerational trauma, substance abuse, colonial violence, and so on.
The name JSCN seemed to drop out of the news as quickly as it had appeared. Thousands of kilometres away, in a Scottish castle, a 96-year-old woman was dying. Queen Elizabeth II’s last public statement addressed the JSCN mass-stabbing. On September 7, the queen wrote “I would like to extend my condolences to those who have lost loved ones in the attacks that occurred this past weekend in Saskatchewan. My thoughts and prayers are with those recovering from injuries and grieving such horrific losses.”
The queen’s death, unsurprisingly, quickly drowned out news about the tragedy at JSCN. If anything, the sudden shift in media attention is an apt analogy. The heinous violence at JSCN was quickly forgotten. The royal drama in the imperial capital flooded the newspapers, at the expense of Indigenous people still suffering from colonial violence. Would the news cycle have looked different if the victims were White? If the murder spree had occurred in Regina or Saskatoon, would the senseless violence feel more immediate, more tragic?
The juxtaposition of the two events exposes the Canadian condition. Our attention shifted so suddenly. For a moment, those people who are so often overlooked, forgotten, and despised came to the fore. The tragedy at JSCN reminded us that there is still much healing and reconciliation left to do. Just as quickly, the people of JSCN were trampled again by images and fanfare celebrating the queen’s life – a pure symbol of settler-colonialism if there ever was one.