Manitoba man who spent decades behind bars turned to art to heal in prison
A Manitoba man who is being given another chance to have his murder convictions vacated after 25 years in prison says his art and connection with his culture helped him survive decades behind bars.
Robert Sanderson was found guilty of three counts of first-degree murder in 1997 and was sentenced to 25 years to life without parole in connection with the murder of three men the year before.
“It was tough,” Sanderson said Monday in an interview with CBC News from Victoria, BC
“The first year, the second year, the third year, and it just dragged on. Before you know it, 10 years, 11 years have passed. And then just imagine, I’ll be here a long time. And I decided that at that point I was going to start making some changes and doing something for myself.”
Sanderson taught himself to paint in prison, inspired by his roots in Métis and Ojibway while maintaining his innocence.
“It was like therapy for me. I spent a lot of time with the elders and it was the elders and the close friends who helped me through many things, stayed by my side and never gave up on me and helped me a lot,” he said.
“I harbored so much anger, so much hate. And through my culture and working with the elders and doing ceremonies, I was able to forgive. I don’t have a lot of faith in the justice system, but it has helped me to get it out of my heart.”
For the past three years, the Métis man has been on probation and living in the Vancouver area. Even outside of prison, Sanderson has found value in making art and capturing the likeness of the prairie and other elements of nature.
“It helps me emotionally. If I can think of something, I can always sit down and just reconnect with nature,” he said.
Sanderson learned Monday that his case had been referred to the Manitoba Court of Appeals after Federal Attorney General David Lametti determined it was likely a miscarriage of justice.
The decision comes after the Manitoba Court of Appeals dismissed Sanderson’s appeal in 1999 and denied him an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada later that year, the Justice Department said in a news release Monday.
Sanderson requested a ministerial review of his case in 2017. The following year his request for bail was denied pending the completion of that review. He was released on parole shortly thereafter, the press release said.
“I really thank you [Lametti] for his decision. Obviously he’s going to make a lot of difficult decisions and I’m grateful for his decision of what he did,” Sanderson said.
Lametti’s decision is also welcomed by Innocence Canada, a nonprofit organization that works to exonerate people convicted of crimes they didn’t commit.
“I was very pleased. The Minister’s decision is certainly correct. And it was a relief to finally get the decision,” founding director James Lockyer said in an interview on Monday.
“It’s been a long, long time – 27 years. But he used them very well. He has become a notable indigenous artist in painting, woodworking and sculpture.”
Lockyer says it would mean a lot if Sanderson’s conviction were overturned, even now that he’s out of prison, because it would mean he was no longer on parole.
“But I think a lot more important than that is getting that ass off his back from those nasty first-degree murder convictions. He wants to clear his name. He wants to do that. And we’ll be there trying to help him with that.”
However, this will not happen overnight. Lockyer estimates the trial will take more than a year.
Meanwhile, Sanderson says he has his art and a strong support network to get him through the tough days.
“The decision of the Minister of Justice is a big step for me. This will help me on my journey. And I’m looking forward to what’s next.”