Mark Arcand was at home in Saskatoon with his family on Sunday morning, when emergency alerts and numerous messages from his family began appearing on his phone. He spoke to a relative, then drove immediately to the unfolding crime scene at the James Smith Cree Nation, to the home of his sister and her family.
“To touch her, hold her, I couldn’t do that. None of our family could do that,” Mr. Arcand said, speaking at an emotional press conference in Saskatoon on Wednesday morning. “Right outside of her home, she was killed by senseless acts. She was protecting her son. She was protecting [her] three little boys. This is why she’s a hero. She’s a true matriarch in the First Nations way of living.”
Mr. Arcand’s sister, 48-year-old Bonnie Goodvoice Burns, and her son Gregory Burns, 28, were killed in the attack on Sunday. Gloria Burns, 61, a community support worker who had come to the house to help after receiving a crisis call, was killed there as well.
Bonnie Goodvoice Burns’s three younger sons were also in the home at the time, as were two foster children who lived with them. Her 11-year-old son, Dayson, was injured in the attack, but has been released from hospital.
Ms. Goodvoice Burns’s husband, Brian Burns, and her father, Chuck Goodvoice, sat alongside Mr. Arcand at the press conference. Brian Burns had been horse racing in another community on Sunday morning, when his wife and son were killed.
“How did this happen to our family? Why did it happen? We have no answers,” Mr. Arcand said. He repeatedly asked that he not be identified in his capacity as a First Nations leader, but as a person speaking about his family and what they had suffered.
Brian Burns wore a white and red ribbon shirt and a black cowboy hat, with a single white feather secured to his hat band. He did not speak at Wednesday’s press conference, and sometimes shook as he tried to contain his emotions, bowing his head and wiping tears from his glasses before he looked up at his sons, Dayson, Mason and Grayson, who sat directly in front of him.
When Mr. Arcand described Dayson being stabbed in the neck, Mr. Burns briefly stood, as if to walk away, before sitting down again.
Brian and Bonnie Burns had been together for 30 years, and married for 15.
At times choking back tears, Mr. Arcand described his family as climbing a mountain of devastation. He said one of the younger children watched the stabbings from behind a high chair.
On Wednesday, the RCMP identified the others killed as Thomas Burns, 23; Carol Burns, 46; Lana Head, 49; Robert Sanderson, 49; Christian Head, 54; Earl Burns Sr., 66 – all from the James Smith Cree Nation – and Wesley Petterson, 78, of Weldon, Sask.
Myles Sanderson, a resident of the James Smith Cree Nation and a suspect in the homicides, died after being taken into custody Wednesday on Highway 11 between Saskatoon and Prince Albert.
Damien Sanderson, his brother, who was initially identified by the RCMP as a suspect in the stabbings, was found dead on Monday in a grassy area near one of the crime scenes on the James Smith Cree Nation. Police said he did not die of self-inflicted injuries. Eighteen people were injured in the attacks.
The press conference in Saskatoon was the first in which victims’ families spoke broadly to the media.
Mr. Arcand said his family heard rumours and innuendo about what happened, but realize they may never know fully what prompted the devastating series of attacks.
Mr. Arcand says it appears that Gregory Burns was stabbed outside first, and that Bonnie Goodvoice Burns went out to protect her son, and was also attacked and killed. He described Gloria Burns, who died with them, as an innocent person trying to support her community.
He declined to speak about Myles Sanderson, and said his family is instead focused on the memory of those who were killed, and on supporting the healing of the survivors, including the children who witnessed the attack. His family started a GoFundMe specifically for the needs of his sister’s husband and their family. Gregory Burns had two children, and a third on the way. A trust fund is also being set up for victims by the James Smith Cree Nation.
Mr. Arcand said he wants people to remember his sister as a loving matriarch, who had a passion to take care of kids, and told stories at family events.
He remembered how Bonnie and Brian used to laugh and joke and kid around with each other. Mr. Arcand at times described people by their nicknames – Gregory “Jonesie,” because he liked to eat like fictional character Jughead Jones – sometimes forgetting their actual names, and there would be a moment of laughter.
“This is how it is in our country where we grew up,” Mr. Arcand said. “It’s all about relationships. It’s all about family, it’s all about nicknames, it’s all about laughter. It’s all about joy.”
“This is healing,” he said.
But the profound effects of the trauma that occurred on the James Smith Cree Nation are only beginning to come clear.
Mr. Arcand, who described himself as an alcoholic who has been sober for more than two decades, said he seriously thought that day about drinking.
He said he has woken screaming in the middle of the night, and has been unable to get the images of the scene out of his head. He said his sister’s body had to remain outside until it had been examined by the coroner, and described that period as the longest hours of his life.
He said the fundraising efforts in his family will be an attempt to make sure that intensive, long-term counselling is available to the children, that they have everything they need to try to deal with the trauma, including a place to live if the family doesn’t return to the James Smith Cree Nation.
He said he had a lot of respect for the work that the RCMP has done at the scene, and that the investigation is in their hands.
“We need the RCMP to do their work,” he said. “We need to let the professionals do their work. And we need to support that work.”
He said the next journey for the family will be laying the victims to rest.
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