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Opinion: Who’s really to blame in the James Smith tragedy?

Common themes emerge at inquest
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Cycles of addiction, crime and blame emerge as the violence of September 2022 is probed.

A nation once again turned its eyes toward east-central Saskatchewan as details about the largest mass murder in recent history surfaced during a coroner’s inquest into the 11 deaths on the James Smith Cree Nation and nearby village of Weldon. A collective ‘tsk, what a tragedy’ could be heard as readers learned of accounts from community members and emergency crews who experienced the events firsthand.

After listening to many hours of testimony — equal parts viewing the timeline of events through a microscope and emotional accounts of early September 2022 — some common themes emerged.

One could easily conclude that Myles Sanderson’s rampage was fuelled by drugs and alcohol. Add to that a toxic mixture of anger and resentment, and it made for prime conditions for such an event to transpire. 

More will be learned about Sanderson’s death in a separate coroner’s inquest later next month in Saskatoon.

Addiction is a huge issue that not only the members of JSCN are grappling with, but our society as a whole. Strides have been made in bringing the discussion of addiction and mental health more often to the forefront, but there’s still a huge stigma preventing the majority of people even thinking about addressing their struggles. 

That is if they can even understand that they are dealing with such negative forces, let alone have the desire to change. 

Listening to the testimony, seemingly everyone knew Sanderson was dealing drugs on JSCN. It was also common knowledge that he was someone not to be tussled with. The man evoked fear in his community, yet nobody called out his inappropriate actions. Why would they be so afraid? Retribution, a severed connection to supply, not wanting to ‘rock the boat’, or even assuming the role of alerting his actions to authorities belonged to someone else. Whatever the reason, Sanderson continued selling cocaine and living a tragic lifestyle unabated. 

Sure, one can call for an increase in addiction services in the community. Such is the case with many worthwhile needs in this province, addiction services are grossly underfunded and lack the butts in seats to help. But would sending addiction counsellors or setting up a treatment centre near a hotspot assist, in the grand scheme of things? 

In my time spent around various courtrooms, one alternative those with drug charges face is time spent accessing resources to address their addictions. However, there is one major key to shifting such ingrained behaviours - the want. 

You simply can’t stop an addiction for somebody else. Or if somebody tells you to do so. Bottom line. 

The base ingredient is a personal desire to achieve the goal. You have to quit drinking/smoking/using because YOU want to. It can’t happen for anyone else. Even if a person does temporarily cease their addiction and then experiences a relapse, if it’s done for the motivation of an outer entity, that is where the finger of blame will be pointed. “I quit for you and it didn’t work” is an adage common for those taking a siesta from their addiction, plus gives ample excuse to continue the damage; picking up from where they left off. 

This whole blame game was another theme I picked up on from the inquiry in Melfort. When asked what needs to change (the ultimate goal of the inquiry is for a jury to discover recommendations to prevent future events from occurring), outside entities were shown to be lacking. 

The police need to do more. The police need to do less. Our leadership has to rise and help the community. The government needs to help us.

What happens when you point a finger? Three are pointing back at you.

As with the example I’ve previously noted about an addict seeking to break the cycle, change has to come from within; on the personal level. It’s not what the ubiquitous THEY are going to do about things, the challenge is what am I going to do about this, how can I affect change - even a small ripple. Those small ripples eventually swell into a wave of change. 

Understandably, there are many social factors also at play as relates to the JSCN. Law enforcement and government officials are not historically positive influences there, and honestly, I don’t see how amends can ever be made to the people of that community. Apologies, financial reimbursement, lofty words speaking reconciliation - they’re all just fleeting. 

Even land acknowledgements prefacing every community event these days - I understand the sentiment behind recognizing the land as being the home of First Nations, but it’s another example of something floating on the breeze. I often imagine an interaction as follows:

“We recognize this land as belonging to you!”

“Oh, great—can we have it back?”

“Well…. No. But we recognize that you were here first!”

I don’t purport to have the answers to what happened at JSCN, nor how to wrap up a solution to their hurt in one easy step. One thing I can tell you is the healing is happening. 

During the inquiry, smudging was as regular as those folks hanging around the entrance of the Kerry Vickar Centre having a smoke break. Elders and community members were respected and encouraged to share their wisdom. People shared - their pain, their joy, their being. 

Healing is a non-linear path. It will take a very long time to suture the community, and scars will always remain. But if a crack of light can come through for those in the throes of addiction to find that personal desire to break the cycle - end the trauma for themselves and make that ripple - oh, that’s where the great change begins.