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opinion

David Butt is a Toronto-based criminal lawyer.

Profound tragedy has unfolded in Saskatchewan: a series of knife attacks that left 10 dead over the Labour Day weekend. Much is unknown, but one of the suspects, Damien Sanderson, was found dead Monday; the other suspect, his brother Myles, died after being captured on Wednesday. So now, there remains an anguished question left to be asked: How could these attacks have happened?

Clear answers are desperately needed. The two can no longer stand trial, and although a trial would have focused narrowly on questions around guilt and punishment it could also have served as an important catharsis for those who suffered loss of loved ones or injury, and their broader community. So this kind of tragedy for which there can now be no trial cries out for a public inquiry – not just because of the enormity of the death and suffering inflicted on innocent victims, and the need for catharsis, but because of the complexity of the circumstances that preceded the horror.

We know that Myles Sanderson had a history of violence, and that he had accrued 59 convictions as an adult. He was released on mandatory supervision in February after serving two-thirds of his nearly five-year federal sentence for assault, robbery, mischief and uttering threats, with conditions designed to ensure appropriate oversight in the community.

Statutory release after two-thirds of a sentence is the norm, and is generally effective for successfully reintegrating offenders into society. The prospect incentivizes offenders to fashion responsible release plans, and allowing them to live in the community with tight restrictions before their sentence expires is a transitional phase that permits evaluation of whether the plan is actually working.

But no good idea works all the time, and the irreducible core of release plans will always be assessment and management of future risk, which will never be free from uncertainty. Still: Did default thinking around the desirability of mandatory supervision lead to unreasonable risks in Mr. Sanderson’s case? Do we need to recalibrate our approach to risk assessment and management?

Parole documents showed that Mr. Sanderson had maintained sobriety, found a job and housing, acquired a therapist and was taking part in cultural ceremonies. How stringent was the inquiry into these apparently positive aspects of his life? How engaged was he in therapy and cultural ceremonies, and what actual potential did they have in helping him move forward productively? Did the social imperative to reduce the shameful overpopulation of Indigenous people in Canada’s prison system play any role in potentially relaxing standards?

Mr. Sanderson was also released with a condition that he was prohibited from consuming alcohol and non-prescription drugs. Such conditions are controversial because they punish relapse, which is often part of an uneven recovery process, and so it can look like illness is being criminalized. Worse, they can drive a person away from addiction supports precisely when they are needed most. So how wise was that condition, in this case? How can parole authorities better manage offenders with substance-abuse disorders in line with the best evidence-based treatment protocols?

It also appears Mr. Sanderson had been non-compliant with his release conditions since May, but was not apprehended. This is a concern: Overall, the linchpin for the success of early releases from prison on mandatory supervision is the close monitoring and enforcement of release conditions. A public inquiry will need to dive deeply into what happened on the supervision end, and why.

Some police services have squads dedicated to tracking down parole violators, but doing so is demanding work. Sound intelligence-based policing and a host of necessary tactics are required. What attention was given to this important aspect of policing in Mr. Sanderson’s case?

The inquiry should also ask if this was a police resourcing issue. Sometimes, police services with strained budgets will focus resources on solving crimes that have occurred, rather than tracking down people in breach of release conditions who have not committed crimes – at least, not yet. But this thinking is short-sighted when it undervalues crime prevention.

Exploring these issues in a public inquiry will be essential. But its focus must be broader as well. The parole board’s notes on Mr. Sanderson’s background flagged some of the devastating and familiar fallouts of colonialism: the intergenerational effects of residential schools, neglect and childhood exposure to family fragmentation and domestic violence.

This tragic case thus forces us to confront colonialism – not with platitudes, and certainly not by treating the alleged perpetrator, if convicted, with anything approaching leniency, but with an honest look at what more than a century of racist dehumanization can create over the years.

To be clear: the only victims in this case are those who have died, been injured, or lost loved ones. But to be truly committed to avoiding such a tragedy from repeating, we have to look unflinchingly into every facet of this dark calamity.

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