‘Picking up these pieces’: Daughter of Sask. stabbing victims says healing journey will be long, complicated

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Deborah Burns presses a wet, crumpled tissue up to her eyes, taking a moment to breathe.

She wishes her mom Joyce was beside her to share their family’s story. Joyce isn’t ready to speak publicly yet, but she has made progress in her recovery after a terrifying tragedy that devastated the Burns family and their community. 

Joyce and her husband Earl were brutally assaulted in their family home on James Smith Cree Nation, Sask., during the September long weekend.

Earl didn’t survive.

“It’s just so shocking when I think about it. It’s really, really, really unbelievable,” Deborah said. 

The man wielding the knife was Myles Sanderson, who stabbed 10 people to death on James Smith Cree Nation (JSCN) that morning, including his own brother Damien. He also killed one man in the nearby village of Weldon, Sask., and injured several others during the merciless rampage.

Deborah, right, was relieved when her mom was able to come off of life support. She says it’s been a long road to recovery. (Submitted by Deborah Burns)

Joyce was on life support in the hospital. She’s awake now, but has needed ongoing hospital care because of complications and infections.

“Her healing journey through this hasn’t been easy at all. She’s a strong woman,” Deborah said, speaking from a hotel room in Prince Albert, Sask., the city where her mom has been treated.

“She’s been trying her hardest to be really strong for us all, herself included. I can see it in her eyes and I can see it in her body that this has taken a lot out of her.”

Joyce Burns is recovering from the stabbing injuries. She has a walker now, and a stoma bag, but the doctors say those might be temporary. (Submitted by Deborah Burns)

Terror in the morning

Deborah’s phone lit up just before 6 a.m. CST on Sept. 4. She woke up in her Melfort, Sask., home to several missed calls and messages from her teen daughter, who was spending the long weekend at Joyce and Earl’s. 

“I knew something was wrong because they were back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back.” 

She ran outside and called back.

“‘Granny and Grandpa were stabbed,'” she remembers her daughter saying upon answering. “I was like, ‘oh my God, from who? From who?’ And she’s like ‘Myles’ and I started crying immediately.”

Myles Sanderson was known to their family. He was Deborah’s sister’s partner for years and had attacked them before. 

WATCH | Deborah Burns recounts hearing her parents were assaulted

Deborah asked to speak with her mom.

“My mom already had made her way outside and was just sitting outside on the deck. Wondering where my dad went in the [school] bus.” 

Deborah’s mom told her that when the attack began, Earl had yelled at the teens to stay in their bedrooms. 

“[Myles] just went running after my dad and they started fighting.”

The fight spilled out of the house. That was the last time Joyce saw her husband. 

Deborah panicked as she heard screams in the background. She called 911, begging for an ambulance.

“I felt so helpless that I didn’t have a vehicle or a licence to come out there and help them.”

Deborah said her daughter and nephew wrapped blankets and towels around Joyce’s wounds. Joyce was eventually carried to a vehicle on her beading table and taken to the band office, where the injured were gathering awaiting ambulances.

They later learned that Earl died on his school bus, not far from the band office.

The family believes he had either been luring Myles Sanderson away or hunting him down.

Deborah said her dad, left, loved being on the land and sharing that experience with their family members. (Submitted by Deborah Burns)

Remembering Earl 

Deborah lights up when she remembers how her 66-year-old dad loved being outside, in the bush or fishing.

“Every year he always had some sort of MacGyver boat,” Deborah said, laughing as she rattled off the patched up boats he’d cycle through. She used to bug him: “Are you sure that’s gonna float?” 

The family would camp at Narrow Hills Provincial Park. It kept them close. 

“He’d take his grandsons out all the time. My son and my sister’s two sons. So he was with them a lot, fishing, teaching them how to be young men.” 

WATCH | Deborah Burns recalls her father’s love of fishing

Deborah’s kids used to spend weekdays at her parents’ place, attending school on the reserve while she worked in Melfort.

Before the attack, her parents were active members of the JSCN community. Joyce was an EA at the community school and Earl drove the school bus for four decades.

They’d take the grandkids to events, fairs and rodeos. Earl also brought them to powwows, a place of healing for him. 

“My dad did struggle with a lot of alcohol abuse in his past. He was never physical. Never, never harmed us in any way. It was just mostly emotional. But that’s what comes with the trauma, the residential school effects,” she said, noting he was forced to attend from ages four to 16. 

“He’s tried so hard to change, to turn his life around.”

A photo of Earl and Deborah taken when she was a baby on James Smith Cree Nation. She says her dad had the original photo up in his garage. (Submitted by Deborah Burns)

She began to understand more about how he treated them as kids when learning about the trauma of residential schools in university. 

“I learned to forgive my father for not knowing how to raise us, not knowing how to show us love.”

Growing up, she never heard him say “I love you,” but she said he began to soften with her kids. 

”Papa, I love you…Papa, goodnight. I love you,'” Deborah clearly remembers her youngest daughter saying to Earl. 

“She’s like, ‘are you gonna say it back?'”

Deborah softly repeated the words she heard Earl say. 

“I love you.”

Deborah said her father worked hard to heal as he aged. (Submitted by Deborah Burns)

Meeting Myles

Deborah said her family was introduced to Myles Sanderson because of her. She dated Myles’s older half-brother and they had children together. 

“If it weren’t for me he wouldn’t have come around,” she said. “Christmas 2007 was when he and my sister [Vanessa] first saw each other. Myles was coming to visit his brother and see his niece.” 

Sanderson and Vanessa started a relationship and had five children together. Deborah said the relationship was turbulent and violent. 

Deborah understands why it wasn’t easy for her sister to leave. 

“Both [Vanessa] and I actually suffer from DV (domestic violence). Hers was worse, though,” she said. “My abuser, his brother, knew how to hide it.… Mine was more emotional, which led to physical.” 

Community members take part in a candlelight vigil in downtown Saskatoon on Sept. 7, 2022. The gathering was held to remember the victims of a mass stabbing on James Smith Cree Nation and Weldon, Sask. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Deborah’s ex, Myles’ older brother, was charged with assaulting her and threatening to harm her in July 2021. He pleaded guilty and served time.

Her sister reported Myles Sanderson to the police several times, too. Court records show Sanderson was charged multiple times for attacking his partner between 2011 and 2018.   

But the cycle was never broken. 

“[People] don’t take us serious, you know, they don’t listen to us. It kind of feels like we cry wolf too many times.” 

James Smith Cree Nation was the site of one of Canada’s worst mass killings. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

Deborah walked away from her relationship about two years ago. 

“I knew it was more for [Vanessa], though. More serious, more dangerous for her, because of the type of person [Myles] was. Very violent,” she said. “I always went running to my mom and dad when I left. Vanessa had tried [to leave], but she knew she would be putting us in danger.” 

Deborah said Myles once tried to come at her with a knife while she was in an argument with his mother. She said Myles apologized for that years later, but never apologized to her sister.

Myles also tried to kill her dad Earl in January 2015 by repeatedly stabbing him with a knife, according to the court records. Deborah said Myles also attacked her mom that time.

She said they likely survived that attack because Myles cut them around their faces. But on Sept. 4, she said he seemed to know how to cause the more damage.

Joyce opened the door for Sanderson that morning. She later told Deborah she had thought it was her Uncle Barry popping by for his regular visit. 

“She opened the door, and it was Myles. She tried to close. It. He kicked it open and he stabbed her immediately, and then he saw my dad come running.”

Several wreaths and flowers adorn a large cross, cemented into place where family say Earl Burns died on Sept. 4. Burns was stabbed in James Smith Cree Nation during one of Canada’s worst mass killings. (Sam Samson/CBC)

Praying through the pain

Deborah said her daughter, the oldest grandchild, is deeply disturbed by what she saw and heard in that home on Sept. 4. She worries for her daughter’s mental health.

Deborah has leaned on prayer to get through the pain. She has been sober since August, and has had to try hard to stay on that path in the wake of this trauma.

“Before my dad passed away, he was going to help me with all of that,” she said. “That’s the reason why I decided to just stay sober, not to turn to alcohol during all of this, because my dad deserves a good sober daughter. So does my mother.”

She said she tries to offer her family a sense of normalcy. They’ve been spending time at the pool and went to a movie in the city.

The family attended a First Nations veterans service in honour of their dad on Nov. 10. Earl briefly served in the Army and was part of the Saskatchewan First Nations Veterans Association.

It was their first public event together as a family since the September tragedy.

Most of the family attended the celebration of Earl’s life on Sept. 17, but Joyce couldn’t. She was still on life support.

Wanting to go home 

Deborah said her mom wants to be back in her home on the reserve.

Joyce’s condition has kept her away, but so have issues with the home itself, where the attack occurred. The violence left it bloody and in shambles.

Deborah said they were told the place would be cleaned and renovated. Most of the blood was cleaned up — in large part by removing parts of the wall and carpet — but Deborah said that as of mid-November, the pieces removed weren’t replaced or fixed up.

The missing materials are a reminder of those moments of terror.

The cost of their hotel, necessary to be with Joyce, are adding up. Deborah said her family is struggling to afford basic necessities like food and gas. The funeral home told her family the reserve hasn’t covered their share of their dad’s funeral expenses yet.

She can’t fathom how they will afford long-term mental health support when they can hardly get by as it is. 

Deborah says her dad was a critical support for her as a single mother. (Submitted by Deborah Burns)

A personal fundraiser

Deborah has started an online fundraiser to address these costs, but she said she feels uneasy asking for money.

“I felt like a fraud, because people have already donated thousands of dollars to that GoFundMe under James Smith Cree Nation.”

JSCN leadership announced in early September that a crowdfunding campaign had reached its goal of $100,000 and said a new trust fund would be established in the future.

The fundraiser description noted “… costs are astronomical, from funeral costs to hospital and family expenses to long-term rehab and counselling.”

No details of the trust fund have been released.

There have also been many donations to the community from corporations, including $50,000 from Scotiabank and Tim Hortons, which pledged a portion of Orange Shirt Day sales.

Deborah said her family hasn’t been helped by or told about this money.

She’s been using social media to urge for a band meeting, asking for transparency and communication.

CBC contacted James Smith Chief Wally Burns about these concerns. He spoke briefly, saying all money is accounted for but the band is still waiting to sort out finances with the federal government to cover expenses for things like therapy and the funerals.

Deborah has questions.

“How much actually was raised? How much? We don’t know that. And where is it going? Is it going anywhere? Do they have a plan? If they do, they’re not showing us and they’re not telling us, and they’re not talking to us,” she said.

“I don’t want anybody to say, ‘oh, they gave [my mother] this, they gave her that and she’s still asking for more.’ She’s not asking for more. She wants to go home.” 

Picking up the pieces 

So does Deborah. She lost her Melfort home in September and plans to live with her mom on the reserve in the four-bedroom house, alongside her sister Vanessa and their children. The kids range in age from less than one to 15, and are more like siblings than cousins. 

It’s not a permanent solution, but she said it makes sense for now. 

“[Mom] wants us near. She hasn’t been on her own, she’s been married to my dad for 39 years,” Deborah said. 

Deborah said her mom and dad were married for 39 years. (Submitted by Deborah Burns)
Deborah, her parents and two of her children are pictured at Christmas time. Her other child took the family photo. (Submitted by Deborah Burns)

The thought of the upcoming holiday season fills her with sadness. Wherever they have Christmas, it will be their first without Earl, the family’s proud turkey-carver. 

Deborah said her family needs to learn to process the trauma, but she feels they can’t while scrambling to get by financially. 

“It’s making me ugly cause I’m constantly angry, I don’t even know if I got to grieve yet my father, because I’m just —
this is all just so unbelievable and so hard.”

Despite the hardship, she’s not going to give up. 

“Hopefully, we can start our own lives again, but it’s like our lives have been drastically changed and flipped, and now it’s just getting used to it and picking up these pieces.” 

Deborah Burns and her mom Joyce want to be comfortable in their family home. But they can’t go back yet. (Submitted by Deborah Burns)

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