Governor General places tobacco on graves of Saskatchewan stabbing victims


Governor General Mary Simon placed tobacco on Wednesday at the graves of some of the people who died in a stabbing attack on the James Smith Cree Nation earlier this month.

He spent about an hour at St. Stephen’s Church and Cemetery, where most of the people who died in the northeast Saskatoon community are buried.

“I just thought about the people who died because they were innocent people, and I don’t really have the words for that,” said Simon, an Inuk leader who became Canada’s first Indigenous governor-general.

“It’s just a sense of loss that people feel, and I can only imagine what they’re going through. I’m not even part of this community as a whole and I feel the heaviness and the sadness.”

A spokeswoman for the governor general’s office said Chief Wally Burns invited her to the First Nation.

Ten people were killed on September 4 and 18 others were injured in the First Nation and a nearby town.

Simon, along with Burns and other local leaders, spent two to three minutes at each grave, where the flowers were still fresh.

The Governor General placed tobacco at each grave, beginning with Gloria Lydia Burns. The bag was placed alongside other mementos left by family and friends, including signs referring to her as “the boss,” religious candles and rocks inscribed with the sentiments “give, appreciate, believe.”

Simon ended up at Gregory Burns’ grave, placing the tobacco near a teddy bear that said “All Lives Matter” and angel wings. Next to it is the grave of his mother Bonnie Burns, decorated with bingo dabbers, a pink cowboy hat and hearts.

Leaving the church grounds, Simon stopped for 10 minutes in a ditch where Earl Burns was killed as his school bus skidded off the road after being attacked. The retired military veteran was the community’s school bus driver.

Simon then headed to Bernard Constant Community School where the students have now returned. The school had been closed since the stabbings to hold funerals in the gym, which Chakastaypasin gang boss Calvin Sanderson said highlights the need for a community healing shelter.

His gang is one of three that coexist together in the James Smith Cree Nation.

Inside, Simon met with the families of some of the victims while taking part in a ceremony, dining on traditional fish fry and watching powwow dancers. He stood up to dance alongside Wally Burns.

“It made me realize talking face-to-face with some family members how difficult it is for them to deal with this trauma.”

Simon said. “You hear it on the news ΓǪ but it’s never the same when you talk to people who have dealt with such a horrendous event.”

First Nations leaders say many in the community knew the suspects, Damien and Myles Sanderson.

Both brothers are dead: Damien from non-self-inflicted injuries and Myles on September 7 after suffering medical problems while in RCMP custody.

“Everyone was affected. We lost loved ones, our family members,” Calvin Sanderson said Wednesday.

“Members are still locking their doors and drawing their guns and we have to assure them that they are protected in our community with our own security.”

Calvin Sanderson said Simon’s visit was an honor and he hopes the Governor General will continue to help the First Nation. In addition to a healing shelter, he also called for a police service and First Nations housing.

Three houses, which were crime scenes after the attack, remain unoccupied despite having been cleaned.

Calvin Sanderson said some families don’t want to return home after their relatives have been killed and now need a place to live.

Simon said he was taking a message to Ottawa.

“Today has been a very important day for me because I came here and I understand a lot more about what the community is going through,” Simon said.

“So my message when I come back is: As much as we’re supporting the community now, we’re going to need to have ongoing support for the community long-term because this kind of trauma and pain doesn’t go away easily.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on September 28, 2022

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