WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
Nicole Moostoos was jolted awake by her crying daughter sprinting into her bedroom.
“She told me that my mom and Creedon had been stabbed.”
It was around 6 a.m. on Sept. 4. Moostoos, 41, jumped up in a panic, threw on some clothes and headed out the door.
She has walked the road to her mom Arlene’s on the James Smith Cree Nation countless times before.
This time she ran.
“As I was running by, there were bodies lying on the ground.”
With tears in her eyes, Moostoos remembered passing the home where Bonnie Goodvoice-Burns lived with her family.
The yard had become a crime scene.
Goodvoice-Burns’s family said the woman died trying to protect her son Gregory, known as Jonesy, during the knife attack in the community.
A community crisis responder, Gloria Burns, was also killed trying to help them.
Moostoos said she wanted to offer CPR or some sort of assistance, but a woman at the scene said it was too late.
“They were already gone.”
Moostoos kept on toward her mom’s. A friend picked her up on the way.
She thought her mom, 65, would already be in an ambulance on the way to hospital, but when Moostoos arrived, her mom and her younger brother Creedon, 26, were still on the ground wounded.
They were told the paramedics couldn’t come there, because the RCMP had told them to stay put.
Waiting for help at the band office
They picked up Moostoos’s bloodied mom and brother and brought them to the band office, which has a health clinic inside.
They wanted to get the victims to a hospital, but had no choice but to wait for ambulances.
With so many people injured, paramedics had to triage and wait for direction from the RCMP. The men police said were responsible for the attacks were still believed to be on the run.
“I kept begging them just take my mom, just take my mom,” Moostoos said.
“Take Creedon, at least. C’mon!”
Moostoos sat in the band office, holding her mom’s wounded stomach.
“She asked me to lie there and pray with her.”
Moostoos said the people in the band office worked hard to keep the injured calm amid the chaos.
More people with injuries kept showing up. Slowly Moostoos began to understand how widespread the pain was.
“People kept coming and coming and coming and telling me who’s all gone, and it was just unreal. Unreal,” she said.
It felt like a nightmare.
“You wake up the next day and you think it was a bad dream and it all comes rushing back.”
Ten people were killed during the rampage in the small community where basically everyone knows each other and nearby Weldon, Sask.
Moostoos said she’s related to most of the victims, “except that old man in Weldon. God bless his soul.”
She’d also known the suspects, Myles and Damien Sanderson, since they were little boys.
Damien, 31, was found dead near one of 13 crime scenes the day after the attack on James Smith Cree Nation. Police said his wounds did not seem self-inflicted.
His brother Myles, 32, was arrested following an extensive three-and-a-half-day manhunt, but he was pronounced dead in hospital after going into what the RCMP described as medical distress.
A targeted home
Myles Sanderson had threatened Moostoos’s family before.
Moostoos said he threatened to come after one of her brothers — who was working at a local store — with a gun, and to hurt her family.
“He said he was going to burn the house down while we were in it.”
They reported him to the police.
Documents from the parole board of Canada say that in 2017, Sanderson “got into an argument with a First Nation band store employee, tried to fight the victim, and then threatened to murder him and burn down his parents’ house.”
“My mom was so scared,” Moostoos said.
There was some relief after Myles was arrested in 2018 and sent to prison.
But on Sept. 4, months after dropping off the authorities’ radar, he came for her family.
“He kicked the door open,” Moostoos said.
The brother who Myles had previously threatened wasn’t home at the time. Moostoos said her mom was sleeping when Myles entered her bedroom.
“My mom was already afraid of [Myles], and for her to wake up and see him standing there …”
Moostoos paused, struggling for words to describe the terror of that moment and the wounds her mother suffered.
“But my mom’s a strong woman. I know her heart. She’ll learn to forgive,” she said.
Moostoos said forgiveness is important within her family. Her mom, Arlene, is a survivor of the former Muscowequan Indian Residential School.
“She won’t let that [violence] take over her home, because that’s where she has memories with my dad.”
They lost her dad, also a residential school survivor, in March.
Moostoos couldn’t fathom losing her mom, too.
Since the attacks, Moostoos has been staying in Saskatoon with her mom and brother, who both required intensive care at the hospital.
We’re strong, resilient people in James Smith, and I see it every day.– Nicole Moostoos
So far, she has only travelled back to James Smith Cree Nation to attend funerals and wakes.
She lost her “sis,” Carol Burns, who she looked up to for years, her nephew Thomas (Carol’s son), Bobby Sanderson (the father of two of her children), her cousin Earl Burns Sr., and Christian Head, known as Chicken, who was father to her niece and nephew.
“It didn’t really hit me until I got there and had to say goodbye.”
Moostoos is grateful that her mom and brother are physically on the mend.
Her mom is still in the hospital, one of the last survivors still in care, but they are hopeful she will be released later this week. Creedon, who protected his mom the night she was attacked in her bedroom, was released on Thursday.
“He’s quick to protect family, that’s for sure. He’s got a big heart,” Moostoos said.
Ongoing support needed
Moostoos worries for the young ones — the children, cousins, nieces and nephews — who saw their loved ones maimed.
“It was just too much for people who witnessed it. Too much for people who were there.”
Moostoos said the support offered in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy — prayers, donations and on-the-ground help — has been so important.
She said the support must continue. Community members will need long-term help from professional mental health workers, elders, police and leadership to heal, she said.
She hopes this tragedy will force people to address other long-standing issues, many of which are linked to intergenerational trauma.
“We’re trying to be cycle-breakers, because residential schools sure did a number on us.”
Even though Moostoos is still visibly upset about what happened, she said she’s not angry with the Sanderson family.
“I feel for Myles and Damien’s family,” Moostoos said.
“I pray for them. I reached out to them, and told them I was here for them and not to take blame.”
Moostoos believes the deadly rampage was fuelled in part by drugs.
She said meth is rampant and taking hold of the youth.
“We need to put our foot down on people who are selling drugs. When they’re known drug dealers, nothing gets done,” she said.
“Those people are related to certain people that don’t want to bother with it or they just sweep it under the rug.”
A beautiful reserve
Moostoos said James Smith is a beautiful reserve full of good, kind-hearted people.
But she said festering problems liked addiction must be addressed to prevent more trauma.
“We’re strong, resilient people in James Smith, and I see it every day. I saw it at the wakes, the funerals, we all came together,” she said.
“But it didn’t have to happen. None of this should have happened.”
Support is available for anyone affected. You can talk to a mental health professional via Wellness Together Canada by calling 1-866-585-0445 or text WELLNESS to 686868 for youth or 741741 for adults. It is free and confidential.
The Hope for Wellness hotline offers immediate help to Indigenous people across Canada. Mental health counselling and crisis support is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.