Warning: This story contains disturbing details and descriptions of violence some readers may find upsetting.
MELFORT — The fourth day of the coroner’s inquest was a particularly solemn morning for the inquest, with many people from James Smith Cree Nation absent to attend a funeral in the community.
In a small community like JSCN, “the loss of one is a loss to many,” said coroner Blaine Beaven, as he led a moment of silence in memory of Olive Katie Modersohn, who died earlier this month.
Nevertheless, the inquest’s work continued, beginning with more testimony about the RCMP’s actions before, during and after the attacks.
RCMP Staff Sgt. Darren Simons, now retired, was in command of the Melfort detachment on Sept. 4, 2022, when Myles Sanderson killed 11 people and injured 17 others during a stabbing rampage on James Smith Cree Nation and in the nearby village of Weldon.
Simons was posted to Melfort only weeks before the tragedy.
“IT JUST DIDN’T SEEM REAL”
Simons said he awoke that Sunday morning to a phone call telling him about two reports of stabbings on James Smith Cree Nation. A third report came through while he was on the line.
“OK.” Simons told the dispatcher. “I’m gonna roll.”
He raced to the detachment, then to James Smith Cree Nation, stopping on the way to pick up food for the officers already at the scene.
By the time he got to the First Nation, survivors and the injured were gathering at the band office, which had been turned into an impromptu triage centre. People were bleeding from their heads, necks and shoulders, he recalled.
“I saw numerous wounded individuals lined up, stacked up, against the band office. Some were laying down. Some were seated. There were several ambulances, STARS Air Ambulance, medical personnel.
“It just didn’t seem real.”
Simons said he served in Alberta during the 2005 mass shooting in Mayerthorpe, and had always thought it was going to be “the tragedy that I dealt with my career,” but the aftermath of the attacks at JSCN was like nothing he had ever seen before.
“This was the worst thing I had seen in my career,” he testified.
When he was told how many people were injured, and how many were dead, Simons said “it was hard for me to fathom and believe.”
He met up with Const. Tanner Maynard, who had taken command when he and Const. David Miller arrived as first responders.
“This was an extremely chaotic situation,” Simons recalled. “(Maynard) had papers on his lap. His phones were going off; my phones were going off. He was trying to figure out where we need to send members.”
While Simons was now the senior officer at the scene, he chose to leave Maynard in command.
“I wanted to take over; I knew that was my role,” he said. “But I realized that would be like jumping on a moving train (and) I didn’t think that was the thing to do at the time.”
“EXTREMELY PROUD OF THE MEMBERS I WORKED WITH”
As the scope of the tragedy became clear, police began to converge on James Smith Cree Nation from all over Saskatchewan and beyond — without even being asked — to help the community and relieve the first responders.
“I am extremely proud of the members I worked with,” said Simons. “The expression I like saying is that those members stood on their heads and did the impossible, in an impossible situation.
“I couldn’t be prouder to be associated with them.”
Hundreds of RCMP officers “dropped everything and came out to Melfort, ready to assist,” he told the inquest.
“This is the character of the people we have in the RCMP.”
Various provincial officers, including conservation officers, also came out. As the day unfolded, having provincial officers on-site freed up more RCMP members to continue the search for Myles Sanderson.
“The value of those members that day cannot be measured,” said Simons.
With so many people dead, and so many more injured and in need of treatment, Simons said “no amount of training” could have prepared the first responders for what they had to do that morning.
He says RCMP made the “very difficult decision” to have all of the emergency medical crews working out of the band office. People had to make their way there, on foot or by car, to get help.
At the time, the RCMP believed there were two attackers still at large — though they would later find out that only Myles Sanderson had been responsible for the attacks, he was still likely armed, and no one knew where he was.
“We believed it was in the best interest of the safety of the EMS staff and the treatment of the injured people to have them in one location,” Simons said.
“We did prevent them from attending to some calls. It wasn’t an easy decision. But it was the best decision.”
Simons also spoke about the heart-wrenching choices his officers had to make — particularly Const. Tanner Maynard, who had been on JSCN and the acting corporal in command while the attacks were ongoing — between staying with injured people to give first aid, or continuing on to follow the emergency calls that were coming in.
“I have to be honest and say I’m glad it wasn’t me baking that decision, because that is a tough decision,” said Simons. “I believe acting corporal Maynard made an appropriate decision at the time. ….
“And I know that decision is probably going to haunt him for the rest of his life.”
Simons says he, too, is haunted by his part in decisions to leave injured people behind and hope they could make it to help.
“In this situation, we had so much going on,” he said. “Being part of the decision to not let the ambulances go to some of the residences bothers me to this day. But I do believe we made the best decision … in the interest of everyone.”
“I WISH WE HAD GONE THERE EARLIER”
Just after 6 A.M. on the morning of September 4th, Myles Sanderson broke into his in-laws’ home and went straight for his father-in-law, Earl Burns Sr., stabbing him multiple times.
Earl — an army veteran — fought back, jumping on Myles, pulling them both to the floor and continuing to fight until Myles ran out of the house.
And as Myles drove away, a badly-wounded Earl got in his school bus and gave chase; the RCMP would later see the bus in the ditch, still running, as they drove from crime scene to crime scene on James Smith Cree Nation.
Since the inquest began, Earl’s daughter Deborah Burns has watched dashcam footage of RCMP vehicles passing the idling bus four separate times over a period of hours, never stopping to check if anybody was inside.
Simons passed the bus twice that day. Though he noted that something was clearly amiss, “my focus was going on to scenes where I knew we had deceased or injured people and making sure they were taking care of,” he said.
Later, Simons, working with a conservation officer, returned. They were the ones who ultimately found Earl’s body behind the wheel.
“I believe in connections,” Simons told Deborah. “Everything’s connected. … The bus driver was a proud veteran of the Canadian Army, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, and I’m a veteran of the Canadian Army. I believe fate brought me there. I wish we had gone there earlier …
“I never imagined I would find what I found when I opened that bus door.”
As far as Simons is concerned, he said, “every member of the RCMP is my family. Every member of the Canadian military is my family.”
“I’m the daughter of Earl Burns,” Deborah told him, standing across the stage from Simons in the inquest hall.
Both were in tears.
“I can’t imagine your loss,” Simons told her. “Just know, this one is tough on me personally. I apologize that your father did not get my attention earlier. …
“I truly believe I was called to that bus earlier. I just did not get to it, because I had other priorities.”
A PROVINCE IN FEAR
After the first emergency alert went out that morning, “one can’t fathom how many calls came in,” Simons told the inquest.
People all throughout the Melfort area and beyond were calling the RCMP to report suspicious vehicles, suspicious persons, suspicious noises — people wanted to help, Simons said, and they were on high alert for any potential danger.
Simons himself responded to a call about suspicious people trying to get access to units in an nearby apartment building.
As he checked the building, searching for potentially-armed intruders, he heard children giggling.
“I fully suspected kids were playing ‘knock knock’ on the door and running away, without fully realizing the gravity of the situation,” he said.
He was glad, at least, to be able to reassure the apartment-dwellers that the potential threat they had reported had such a benign explanation.
But the province-wide manhunt was far from over, and a degree of panic persisted until Myles Sanderson was captured and died in police custody on Sept. 7, 2022.
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger of self-harm or experiencing suicidal thoughts, please contact Crisis Services Canada (1-833-456-4566), Saskatoon Mobile Crisis (306-933-6200), Prince Albert Mobile Crisis Unit (306-764-1011), Regina Mobile Crisis Services (306-525-5333) or the Hope for Wellness Help Line, which provides culturally competent crisis intervention counselling support for Indigenous peoples (1-855-242-3310).
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