‘Beginning to heal’: Saskatchewan mass stabbing victim wakes up in hospital widowed

Joyce and Earl Burns were childhood sweethearts.

They grew up together in the James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, first as neighbors, then as husband and wife.

“It was childhood love,” said Victor Sanderson, Joyce Burns’ younger brother. He cared for his children and watched the couple grow old together.

She now visits her sister in a hospital room in Saskatoon, where she recently regained consciousness after being stabbed multiple times in the stomach and neck in a First Nation mass murder.

The ashes of her husband of 66 years are in an urn next to her bed.

Joyce and Earl Burns were among 28 people attacked in the First Nation and the nearby town of Weldon, northeast Saskatoon, on September 4.

Ten people, including Earl Burns, were killed. Two suspects were also killed.

Doctors had put Joyce on life support and her family was shocked when she woke up in late September, her brother said.

“It was really exciting to see how he was doing because his lungs filled with water and his liver filled with water,” Sanderson said from his home in Debden, Sask.

“When she was transferred to Saskatoon, she was practically leaving us, but then she turned around. Her body is beginning to heal.

“I am very happy that she is still with us, very much.”

Sanderson said that Earl Burns was more than his brother-in-law. He was a mentor.

After Earl Burns joined Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry with the Canadian Armed Forces, he convinced Sanderson to join as well.

“He taught me: ‘Keep your head up, don’t let anyone bring you down and always stand your ground.'”

When Earl Burns left the military, he started a family with his wife and they eventually became grandparents. He was also a rodeo competitor and a die-hard fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“He was a great guy. He was a jack of all trades. He loved life, he loved his kids, he loved his grandkids more than anything else,” Sanderson said.

“He always protected his family in a good way.”

Standing up for his family and community is how First Nation residents remember Earl Burns.

They said he bought his own school bus years ago and took students to Bernard Constant Community School every weekday.

On the Sunday morning of the murders, he tried to get help and breathed his last on that school bus, Sanderson said.

A memorial with flowers from his Sept. 17 funeral has been placed near where residents say his bus skidded off the road when he died.

Sanderson said he’s not sure if one or both of the suspects, brothers Myles and Damien Sanderson, attacked his sister and her husband.

Court documents show that in 2015 the couple’s former son-in-law, Myles Sanderson, repeatedly stabbed Earl Burns with a knife, injuring Joyce Burns. He was sentenced to two years minus one day in jail.

Myles Sanderson died after suffering medical problems in police custody. Damien Sanderson died from injuries that were not self-inflicted near one of the many crime scenes on the First Nation.

As his sister begins to walk again in the hospital, Victor Sanderson said he focuses on remembering the laughs, mostly from Earl, who was known for cracking jokes and making people smile.

“He was a very important part of my life,” she said.

“Seriously, it’s really always focused on children. Our children’s future (in the James Smith Cree Nation) and how they’re doing, and what direction our leaders are taking them in.”

He said the attacks have brought his family members closer together and changed everything else as well.

“Our perspective on James Smith is going to be totally different,” he said.

“The only way we can (cure ourselves) is to keep going. Seek brighter days and not let this happen again.”

“And let no one forget it.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on October 6, 2022.

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