Survivors of the James Smith Cree Nation shooting spree try to overcome their ‘unending pain’

RCMP vehicles patrol James Smith Cree Nation during search for suspect Myles Sanderson.  (Lars Hagberg/AFP via Getty Images - photo credit)

RCMP vehicles patrol James Smith Cree Nation during search for suspect Myles Sanderson. (Lars Hagberg/AFP via Getty Images – photo credit)

WARNING: This story contains disturbing details.

Keenan Head was asleep when death came to his door.

It was sometime between 5:30 and 6 a.m. on September 4, 2022. His girlfriend heard the crunch of tires on gravel in the driveway, followed by heavy footsteps up the small wooden porch to the door of their home.

She shook him awake and he stumbled to the door where he saw his childhood friend, Myles Sanderson – who at the time was in the midst of a deadly armed rampage through the James Smith Cree Nation some 200km northeast of Saskatoon.

“He was just like, ‘F-you, f-you,’ the whole time,” Head said.

“I thought he was going to hit me … I thought he was going to give me some bro-shots.”

But they were knife wounds.

“I’ve been stabbed 20 times,” Head said.

“First the paramedics counted 18 and I snapped out of there and they counted 20. Twenty stab wounds and a punctured lung.”

Olivia Stefanovich/CBC

Olivia Stefanovich/CBC

Head’s girlfriend was also stabbed four times.

Sanderson is believed to have killed 11 people – including his brother Damien – and injured 18 others in the small Cree nation and nearby town of Weldon, Sask. It was the deadliest stabbing in Canadian history.

Sanderson was arrested and died in police custody after an intense four-day search.

Six months after the massacre, Head and other victims speaking to CBC News said they continue to struggle and need more support as they search for answers behind layers of trauma.

They will have to wait until early 2024 for two inquiries to begin – one into the massacre, the other into Sanderson’s death – to give the RCMP time to complete its investigation.

“Like a Nightmare”

Head, 33, swaying back and forth in James Smith on a bright, cold day, was standing outside his girlfriend’s house where the attack took place. He said he still couldn’t understand those violent hours that changed his life forever.

“It kind of felt like a nightmare,” Head said. “He was my best brother, man…”

He is homeless and struggling with the aftermath of his encounter with death. Head said times were so tough for him that he sometimes wished the police would come and put him behind bars.

“I just want to go back to the fucking prison,” Head said.

“Everything just hits me.”

Vanessa Burns/Delivered

Vanessa Burns/Delivered

Indigenous Services Canada gave Cree Nation $1.2 million to James Smith to repair and replace homes damaged during the mass stabbings. This doesn’t help Head since he didn’t have a house to begin with.

So he surfs on the couch and stays with his girlfriend from time to time. He said their relationship has faced challenges since he was attacked and he experienced emotional breakdowns.

“It just comes and goes like you just can’t stop it,” Head said.

“I need some help… I’ve been through a lot of things in my life, man, you know?

“bleed and bleed”

The day before the massacre, Head was hanging out with Sanderson. They shared a few joints before Head was taken to his girlfriend’s house for the night.

Head said they were “crazy buddies” and he never expected Sanderson to follow him.

“I thought he was drunk, but I don’t know what the hell he was doing,” Head said.

Head said that after he was stabbed, he went door to door in James Smith’s village seeking help. He said no one answered the door in the first house and residents in the second told him to leave them alone.

“I stood there bleeding and bleeding on the steps,” Head recalls.

Olivia Stefanovich/CBC

Olivia Stefanovich/CBC

Head said he spent about two weeks in the hospital. The scars on his neck are still visible.

For a while, he said, he drank a bottle of liquor every day to cope. He said he checked himself into a detox and tried treatment, but it didn’t help.

He said he was afraid of losing his mind.

“I just don’t want to go back to my lifestyle, get in trouble and stuff like that. I want to change my habits.”

“Dad tried to kill me”

Vanessa Burns is also trying to get help for herself and the five children she had with Sanderson. She has a therapist, has attended a suicide prevention workshop and traditional healing session. She even tried yoga. Nothing worked.

“It’s like a never-ending pain,” Burns said. “It’s just there every day.”

Burns woke up on September 4, 2022 to multiple missed calls and a text from her 13-year-old son, Dallon: “Dad tried to kill me.”

Her son lived with her parents in James Smith. Dallon told her Sanderson stabbed her mother, Joyce, and her father, Earl Burns Sr.

“It was pretty shocking … I was pretty scared too,” said Burns, who added that she was beaten by Sanderson two days before the stabbing.

Olivia Stefanovich/CBC

Olivia Stefanovich/CBC

Burns said she didn’t know if Sanderson would show up at her home in Saskatoon — the house she moved to to be with Sanderson after giving up a house in James Smith — so she rounded up the kids and fled .

Dallon, she said, loaded a gun and guarded his grandparents’ apartment in case his father returned.

This wasn’t the first time Sanderson had attacked her parents. He was found guilty of repeatedly stabbing her with a knife in 2015 and was sentenced to two years less a day.

But this time her father died.

“I feel guilty. I feel like I shouldn’t have, like I wish I had never met him,” Burns said.

“I feel like he just won. He destroyed my family.”

When she returned to her Saskatoon home later that week, Burns said she found a condom on her door and her mail scattered.

She said she believed it was a sign from Sanderson.

“Nobody goes to my house but him,” she said. “He knows where I live.”

Olivia Stefanovich/CBC

Olivia Stefanovich/CBC

Burns now resides at her mother’s house. They miss the loving grandpa who they fondly remember as funny and always willing to help, always keen to take his grandchildren on quad bike rides.

Burns said she believes Sanderson came to her parents’ house to kill her father because he was trying to protect her from his constant abuse.

“He probably would have killed the kids too if my father hadn’t done anything,” she said.

“slept for 10 years”

Burns met Sanderson 16 years ago on Christmas Day at her parents’ house.

She said he would be nice to her at first before suddenly turning on her – she accused of cheating on him, gaslighting her, making her feel crazy.

The abuse started early in the relationship, she said. Every time she tried to leave him, she added, no matter where she went, he always found her.

“You can get to a point where you don’t care about yourself and you’re just comfortable and just letting someone abuse you,” Burns said.

“I slept for ten years and let someone control and manipulate me.”

Burns said Sanderson also injured his children by pulling their ears and hitting them hard.

But Burns said she never wanted to keep her children away from their father, even though his family felt guilty about staying away from him and calling the police.

“I just forgive too easily,” Burns said. “That’s my problem, I guess.”

Burns will soon work with the RCMP to help investigators understand Sanderson’s thoughts.

She blames the hard drugs he’s been on behind her back for his behavior – mostly cocaine, some crystal meth.

Burns said Sanderson’s grandfather, a boarding school survivor, was cruel to him and hit him for minor mistakes.

“I think that had a lot to do with his anger,” she said.

Now, she said, she wonders if she ever really knew him.

“Was that really him?” said Burns. “Was he just faking it all along?”


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