JAMES SMITH CREE NATION, SASK. — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walked through blowing snow Monday to lay tobacco on the graves of victims of a mass stabbing before listening to family members who have been grieving for nearly three months.
"I know you are still reeling and still processing what happened and what took place," Trudeau told a news conference in the James Smith Cree Nation's school gym.
"I know from the conversations that I had that members from the community are still grappling with it every single day."
The Sept. 4 stabbings left 11 dead and 18 injured on the James Smith Cree Nation, as well as in the nearby village of Weldon, Sask., northeast of Saskatoon. Myles Sanderson, the 32-year-old suspect in the attacks, later died in police custody.
Trudeau mentioned each of the victims by name.
He talked about how Carol and Thomas Burns were visiting on the First Nation and got swept up in the violence. He talked about Christian and Lana Head, whose family told him their deaths have left holes in their lives. He spoke about Gloria Burns, who went to help others that day and lost her life.
"These are not just names. These are not just part of a number of people in this horrific attack," he said. "They are all individuals with stories."
Trudeau, accompanied by Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu, went to Saint Stephen’s Anglican Church, where seven of the victims are buried, and two other locations of graves.
Trudeau made the sign of the cross at each of the graves and took a moment of silence.
John Kelly Burns said he was overwhelmed with grief and struggled to speak with the prime minister. But, he said, it was important to tell the stories of his younger brother, Thomas, and mother, Carol.
“It was important to get comfort from a leader of our country and to have him come check on us to see how we are actually feeling," he said.
Trudeau announced the federal government is to spend more than $40 million over the next six years to help build a new wellness centre and to repurpose a lodge to "address immediate needs" on the First Nation.
He said it's also spending $2.5 million over five years to increase access in the community to treatments, including traditional and cultural supports, as well as long-term care of people with substance abuse problems.
Another $20 million over four years is to top up the Pathways to Safe Indigenous Communities Initiative, which supports community-based safety and wellness projects for Indigenous women, girls and LGBTQ people in various communities, including James Smith.
Janelle Kinch, who also lost family members in the rampage, said it should not have taken such a devastating loss to make change. However, she said she feels hopeful.
Darryl Burns, a brother of victim Gloria Burns, held his head and wiped away a tear. He said he has been asking for a centre for years and didn't know if there'd be change in his lifetime.
Now, he said, he sees a bright future for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
"We are going to have a building. We are going to have our own place," he said. "We are going to have a safe place for people to come and heal."
Earlier in the day, Trudeau met with James Smith Cree Nation Chief Wally Burns and council members from the First Nation, as well as leadership from the nearby Peter Chapman Band and Chakastaypasin First Nation.
The prime minister was draped in a blue, white and black star blanket and given a feather blessed by elders.
"Today, we share the celebration of life that was passed in such short notice. There’s lots to learn and there’s lots to grieve," Chief Burns said.
The smell from smudging, a traditional practice, wafted through the halls. Walls were covered in hearts and cards with notes of support for families of the victims.
The stabbings have amplified calls for more Indigenous-led policing and Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino has promised to table legislation this fall that would declare Indigenous policing an essential service.
Trudeau said Ottawa will continue to collaborate with First Nations to ensure Indigenous policing is recognized as an essential service, but it needs time to be done right.
"Our shared goal is to make sure that people feel safe," he said.
Kelly Burns said there needs to be immediate changes to have faster emergency response in communities. She said she told Trudeau how she was in a house when her sister, Carol, was attacked. She did CPR alone for an hour trying to save her sister's life.
“I should have had help.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 28, 2022.
Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press