Image: the pictures of Damien and Myles Sanderson shown by the RCMP during a September 4th 2022 press conference.
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On September 4, ten people were stabbed to death in the James Smith Cree Nation and the nearby village of Weldon, Saskatchewan, midway between Prince Albert and Melfort. Police identified two brothers, Damien and Myles Sanderson, as the suspected killers. The next day, Damien was found dead with multiple wounds. Myles was taken into custody on September 7 and died of a drug overdose hours later. Police eventually determined that Myles Sanderson was responsible for all the deaths, including that of his brother.
John Richards wrote an op-ed on the tragedy and shared it with the Inroads listserv. It sparked a discussion, highlights of which are presented here. This version of John’s op-ed was revised and expanded by Pierre Fortin and appeared under their joint byline in French in Le Devoir on September 12 and in English in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix on September 27, and subsequently in Saskatchewan’s other major newspaper, the Regina Leader-Post.¹
John Richards | September 6
Gabriel Wortman, who killed 22 in Nova Scotia, was White. Myles Sanderson, who has killed 11 and injured 18 in the James Smith reserve east of Prince Albert, has Indigenous ancestry. I have no insight into the factors that predispose people to go on a killing spree. Pathological killers are, fortunately, a very small share among all ethnic communities.
However, there is more to this tragedy than analyzing the psychology of Myles Sanderson. Over the years 2016–18, the average annual number of homicide victims in Canada was 472. Nearly a quarter of all victims (109) were Indigenous; among the Indigenous victims, two thirds (73) were in the Prairie provinces. Overall, the Canadian homicide victim rate is low. Among the non-Indigenous, the average annual rate was just above 1 per 100,000. Among Indigenous people living outside the Prairies, the rate was just below 5 per 100,000; among Indigenous people in the Prairies, the rate was 14 per 100,000. The Prairie homicide victim rate is not low! What is the explanation?
Harold Johnson, a First Nation lawyer who grew up in northwestern Saskatchewan, was for many years crown prosecutor in the northern half of the province. In 2016 he published his memoir, Firewater: How Alcohol is Killing My People (and Yours). The title refers to the dominant theme throughout the book – the need for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders to address the abuse of alcohol and drugs among Indigenous peoples in northern Saskatchewan. We could blame it all on White settlers and residential schools. But, he argued, that implies history is the only relevant explanation for today’s problems: Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders have no agency, no ability to undo the damage. He emphasized rehabilitation of Indigenous identity and temperance – “safe houses” where the residents commit to abstinence.
Johnson’s policy recommendations deserve serious attention. A third way of looking at the syndrome of high homicide, suicide and alcohol/drug abuse rates is to attack the persistence of high unemployment rates, low education rates and low earnings among those in remote Indigenous communities – in particular in the Prairies.
Based on careful analysis at the county level in “rust belt” U.S. states over the last quarter century, Angus Deaton concluded that factory shutdowns were a central factor in explaining increased local rates of suicide, alcohol/drug abuse and low health status. Factory shutdowns led to higher local unemployment rates and lower wages for those with a job. On the basis of this work, Deaton won the 2015 Nobel Prize in economics. He insisted that his wife, Anne Case, deserved half the prize. They have summarized their analysis in a widely read book, Deaths of Despair. They do not claim that the deterioration of social conditions over the last quarter century in small towns is the only problem, but undeniably “employment at good wages matters.”
The chief of the James Smith reserve east of Prince Albert has acknowledged that use of drugs and alcohol on his reserve is widespread and amounts to a very serious problem. Maybe the motivation of Myles Sanderson’s murders was his participation in the drug trade. Maybe the explanation lies elsewhere. Whatever his motivation, the underlying lack of employment in many remote reserves, such as James Smith, is a factor conducive to “deaths of despair.”
I conclude with a quote from a 2017 parliamentary report on suicide:
For those living in remote communities, the Committee heard there is clear connection between unemployment and hopelessness. For example, when the Weeneebakyo Area Health Authority (near James Bay) asked a young First Nation woman why there are many suicides in her reserve she replied, “It is simple, no jobs, no future and no hope.”
Frances Abele | September 7
Another perspective appears on the op-ed page of this morning’s Globe, written by Ken Coates.²
John, I would respond to you that you are presenting only part of the truth. What you leave out are the sources of strength and positive change.
Steven Davis | September 9
Education and jobs on reserves, you say, are part of the solution. I suppose that the possibility of a job is part of the motivation for someone to get educated, but what kind of jobs can there be on remote reserves? Not all of them have natural resources nearby that can generate jobs.
John Richards | September 9
I wrote an op-ed on the James Smith Cree reserve tragedy on Tuesday. Frances admonished me for presenting only part of the truth and advised me to read the op-ed by Ken Coates in the Globe. Ken has written a great deal about economic development on reserves that succeed in establishing business arrangements, often with resource-sector firms. I agree that this is happening. A comprehensive exploration of “communal capitalism” is Tom Flanagan’s latest book, The Wealth of First Nations (a clever play on Adam Smith). The trouble with Ken and Tom is that they pay attention only to the “sources of strength and positive change.” Tom undertakes an assessment of all Canadian reserves and emphasizes that only two dozen have the administrative capacity to assure success with communal capitalism. He and Ken are reluctant to discuss the severe social problems and the evident close association of “deaths of despair” with low levels of employment and education.
Le Devoir has agreed to publish my op-ed. Its editor requested further detail on regional Indigenous homicide rates across Canada. Here is my original paragraph reworked with revised statistics for 2016–18:
However, there is more to this tragedy (in the James Smith Cree Nation) than analyzing the psychology of Myles Sanderson. Over the years 2016–18, the average annual number of homicide victims in Canada was 580. A quarter of all victims (146) were Indigenous; among the Indigenous victims, two thirds (95) were in the Prairie provinces. Overall, the Canadian homicide victim rate is low. Among the non-Indigenous, the average annual rate over the three years was just above 1 per 100,000. Among the Indigenous in the Prairies, it was 14, which is not low! Other than the Territories, the average annual Indigenous rates were high but much lower than in the Prairies: Atlantic (1), Quebec (4), Ontario (5), B.C. (5), Territories (19). Among all homicide perpetrators, approximately a third were Indigenous. Among both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, the great majority of victims were killed by family members and acquaintances.
Incidentally, Tanya Talaga, an Indigenous frequent contributor to the Globe, has an op-ed today. Her title sums up the reality on many reserves: “The Beast of Addiction in Indigenous Communities Remains Untamed.”³ I acknowledge the importance of cultural rehabilitation and affirmation. I acknowledge that some communal capitalism ventures are succeeding. I would like to see acknowledgement that employment and education matter, and that two thirds of those who identify as Indigenous do not live on a reserve; over half live in a city.
Geoff White | September 9
I have been following the discussion of John’s draft op-ed with interest.
I am inclined to agree with John with respect to the need for improved education, but what form should that take? On First Nations territories (formerly known as reserves), there would appear to be a need for a major investment in facilities and hiring of teachers, especially for primary schools. This should be under the leadership of First Nations residents and give space to traditional Indigenous knowledge. Still, mathematics, science and literacy in one of Canada’s official languages (appropriate to location) must lie at the core of the curriculum.
I am not familiar with achievement rates of Indigenous students not living on First Nations territories relative to their non-Indigenous peers in public education. Since I expect the rates are lower for Indigenous students, additional resources need to be injected under the clear leadership of members of the Indigenous community, but once again stressing mathematics, science and literacy.
With respect to employment, I admit to having doubts similar to others with respect to there being so little opportunity for economic activity on a large number of First Nations territories. Can this be remedied in this era of remote “working from home” by vastly improving the digital infrastructure on First Nations territories? Whatever the case, remote workers must be invested with some sense of the meaningfulness of such work, including feeling a positive connection with life outside of their territorial homes.
Frances Abele | September 9
I’d like to offer two observations:
- In April 2020, Gabriel Wortman killed 22 of his neighbours in Portapique, Nova Scotia. The impact of this murderous spree is of course still being suffered by the people there. But one thing that they have not had to suffer is being pathologized as members of the same ethnic group as the killer. No one introduced statistics about literacy rates, murder rates or drug abuse rates in their region, and no one offered employment programs and the like as a means of avoiding future murders. No one assumed that they all needed the same treatment that might have suppressed Wortman’s insanity.
- Ken Coates’s article in the Globe and Mail – the one I recommended for reading – was not a discussion of economic development as a solution. It was an attempt to help people see beyond the murders to the normal and hospitable community that endured this horror. Ken had been there for a visit with some students (international and Canadian) just a couple of weeks before the murders. He was attempting to head off group pathologizing and to help us see the people who were harmed as people, like us. The community leadership did the same thing. Chief Mark Arcand of the Saskatoon Tribal Council, whose sister and nephew were murdered, talked through his pain in a similar effort. Why? I think it is because they know how quickly “Oh God, innocent people murdered!” turns into clinical discussions of “What is wrong with these people? What can we do to fix them?”
This happens again and again in our country and it needs to stop. It’s damaging.
Claire Durand | September 9
With my student, I carried out an analysis of education, employment, income and housing in 26 Quebec First Nations and surrounding communities.
Our conclusion: With the same level of education, First Nations have a similar employment rate and an income that is only slightly lower. The problem is access to education. I have been in a few First Nations communities and noticed how there is now much emphasis on education. The federal government failed incredibly in providing real access to education to First Nations. In fact, when First Nations communities are near a city, people in these communities are often more educated than in communities around them. The problem is access in isolated communities.
Anecdotally, a friend of mine worked as a teacher in Nunavik in the 1970s. They looked for the most educated person in the village to teach Inuktitut to the kids. The most educated person had completed Grade 3!
The second problem that we could see in our data is housing. People were 40 times more likely to live in an overcrowded residence in First Nations communities than in the surrounding communities. This means that any problem – mental health, alcoholism, etc. – has an effect on many more people in First Nations communities. In Manawan, for example, there are 300 houses for 2,300 people.⁴
Finally, in another research project, we analyzed income in different First Nations communities in Quebec. The Cree had much higher incomes on average (seven times the average income of Abenakis). They are the only ones who have some control over development on their territory because of the James Bay and “Paix des Braves” agreements. They have agreements with companies that want to establish mines on their territories. They get part of the profits and the companies need to train and hire First Nations people, usually a third of their employees.
We tend to think that there are no jobs up there. It is not quite true, at least not all the time. There are mines where they bring workers from the south – the “fly in fly out” system – instead of hiring First Nations people who live nearby. When communities can control their territories, they can start to change things.
Henry Milner | September 9
I am trying to understand your post. Are you saying that it should be irrelevant that this crime was committed against Indigenous members of a particular community by one of its members? Are you saying that the circumstances of life in that community and the background of the killers should not be taken into account? This is probably the sentiment of most Canadians, but I didn’t think it was yours. I thought you supported the Supreme Court’s position that an individual’s Indigenous identity should be taken into account in sentencing. Clearly that was the rationale for the relatively lenient treatment of Sanderson, which left him free to go on a murderous spree.
Frances Abele | September 9
Thank you for trying to understand me. I will try to be clearer. This means I might be offensive. I am sorry for that.
I was not objecting to taking a murderer’s life circumstances into account in understanding his behaviour. I was noticing that the standard and practice applied to Indigenous people are different from those applied to the rest of us, and I was inviting all of you to think about whether that is okay.
When we marshal all of those statistics in response to a tragedy, we lose sight of the humanity of the people who were involved. An Indigenous person or community should not be reduced to a syndrome or a social problem. It is dehumanizing.
If you could know the people involved, you would know they are like any other Canadians. Further, like all of us, they have the capacity to respond to tragedy – you can see that this week. They do not need us to fix them. They need our solidarity and, in particular, they need us to get out of their face while we listen and learn. That is all.
These are my own views. I don’t mean to judge or chide. I was hoping to provoke thought, to see if a crack would appear between our confident analyses and the human lives we are talking about.
Arthur Milner | September 9
I would add:
The killings in Portapique were treated as an aberration, as was the motor vehicle accident that killed 16 young hockey players in Saskatchewan in 2018.
The murders at James Smith reserve were also an aberration, and perhaps they should have been treated as such, followed only by further police investigation and a long period of concern and caring for the victims and their families. Perhaps it was rude to turn immediately to the alleged causes of violence on the James Smith reserve. Is that what you’re saying, Frances: that no one should have called attention to “literacy rates, murder rates or drug abuse rates”?
But that was never going to happen. James Smith Chief Wally Burns quickly commented on the reserve’s drug problems, and Tanya Talaga wrote about addiction problems in the Globe article John cited.
The murders presented an opportunity to talk about violence on reserves. Are you saying Indigenous observers should not have taken it
Jared Milne | September 11
Building on Professor Durand’s point, isn’t another part of the problem the fact that Indigenous housing, education, etc. are grossly underfunded by Ottawa compared to what the provinces spend on their own housing and education systems for non-Indigenous populations?
It’s also kind of hard to make financial decisions when so many reserves are under third-party management.
This may or may not be germane to the discussion, but I wonder if part of the problem too is that Indigenous people are constantly scapegoated as being solely responsible for all the problems their communities face, despite much of it coming from non-Indigenous government activities. It’s assumed that Indigenous people prefer to sit on their backsides getting sloshed than do any honest work, that they can’t be trusted to manage themselves or money responsibly, that they need “proper oversight.”
This, sadly, is nothing new in Canadian history.⁵
Claire Durand | September 11
I started my research on Indigenous statistics after a student came to my office stating, “We are sociologists, we know that any society cannot be only negative. So why do we see only negative statistics about Indigenous people?”
It started a research project with three students that lasted a few years. I called it “The Social Impact of Statistics.” When you look at averages, White people are always first, and White men even more. There are perceptions and representations that remain in people’s minds when they see these statistics.
So I told my students that they were forbidden to do research about Indigenous people’s “problems.” There are enough people speaking about their problems; we were going to do research about what goes right. Why do some people manage to get by? Why are some Indigenous communities functioning very well?
These communities usually decided to stop relying on the government. They bought outfitters, campgrounds, etc., as in Essipit, or they managed agreements with Hydro-Québec, as in Masteuiash, or they could profit from the resources on their land, like the Cree people. These communities have no unemployment and they even are more educated and have more jobs than non-Indigenous people in surrounding communities. The villages are clean and you don’t see any drunk people around.
The point is that when we speak of a group of people as if they are all the same, we homogenize and essentialize them, as if it was a question of culture, while there is heterogeneity among Indigenous people as among non-Indigenous people.
¹ John Richards and Pierre Fortin, Mourir de désespoir, il faut faire cesser l’hémorragie, Le Devoir, September 12, 2022; John Richards/Pierre Fortin: Look Beyond James Smith Suspect’s Psyche, Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, September 27, 2022.
² Ken Coates, In This Devastating Moment, Canada Must Support the James Smith Cree Nation, Globe and Mail, September 6, 2022.
³ Tanya Talaga, The Beast of Addiction in Indigenous Communities Remains Untamed, Globe and Mail, September 8, 2022.
⁴ Details of our research can be found in Mélanie Deslauriers, Claire Durand and Gérard Duhaime, Que se cache-t-il derrière les portraits statistiques nationaux : Le cas des Amerindiens au Québec, Sociologies et sociétés, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Autumn 2011), pp. 143–74; Claire Durand, Mélanie Deslauriers and Gérard Duhaime, Quelles statistiques pour analyser les inégalités ? : Le cas des Premières Nations au Québec, SociologieS (online), May 2012.
⁵ See my article Non-Native Actions Have an Impact Too, Medium, June 1, 2016.