WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
Orlen Burns picks up a photo of his late brother, Earl Burns. There are several on the table, but this one is Burns’s favourite of the bunch.
It shows a young Earl about to compete at a rodeo — clutching the reins on a horse that’s ready to try and buck him off.
“He was always smiling,” said Burns. “Always smiling, no matter what.”
On Tuesday, there was a wake for Earl Burns. Family and friends ate soup and baked goods while they told stories of Earl and looked at his photos.
Earl Burns was one of 10 people violently killed on Sept. 4 during a stabbing rampage — Saskatchewan’s deadliest mass killing.
The 66-year-old veteran was from James Smith Cree Nation, where the violence started early in the morning. Two brothers, now both dead, are accused of stabbing and killing people in James Smith, then travelling to the nearby community of Weldon, Sask. where one man was killed.
That morning, Burns says his family called him to say Earl was dead.
The entire family lives in James Smith Cree Nation, so Burns got in his truck and drove to Earl’s house to check on him.
On the way, he saw a school bus in a ditch with the motor running. The same bus Earl used to bring kids to school.
Burns says he ignored it at first and continued, but when no one answered at Earl’s house, Burns back to check on the bus. At that point, it was around 7:30 a.m. CST.
“I went to the bus, and I could see him lying on the floor. He was already dead when I went in the bus. He was laying in his own blood” said Burns.
“I started crying. I burst out in tears.”
Burns says he believes his brother was stabbed in his own home, then got in the bus to chase after the accused.
“That’s where he took his last breath,” said Burns.
“At the top of a hill. The bus rolled down, and that’s where he died.”
Burns says he and his family told police, who were already dealing with another scene in the community. RCMP say there were 13 different total crime scenes.
Shortly after that, Burns says his father, two other brothers and sister found out.
“They lost it,” he said.
Burns says he and his brother were close. The children were forced to go to a residential school near Duck Lake, Sask., as children. Burns’s favourite memories are competing in rodeos, playing hockey and soccer together. The two hunted together, as well.
“He was a pretty good shot, for a guy in the army,” Burns said with a smile.
Community support nearby
Before tonight’s wake, Burns and others went to a vigil in Prince Albert, organized by the Prince Albert Grand Council. About 200 people showed up Tuesday evening to light candles, listen to speeches from about a dozen chiefs, and sing Stand By Me.
“This is a support system that needs to be seen around the world, and especially the people in James Smith and Weldon,” said Sheryl Kimbley, the event organizer.
“We want to always make sure they know when the story dims — when it’s starting to be lost to the world — we will always keep our light on.
Burns was at Tuesday’s vigil.
“It was good. It calmed me. Because I was pretty angry when I found out he was murdered,” he said.
“We wanted to go look for them, but the police didn’t want us out there. My wife made me stay home. I was walking around with my gun in the house, because he wasn’t caught yet.”
Damien Sanderson’s body was found in James Smith two days after the violence. Myles Sanderson was on the run for almost four days before RCMP chased down his vehicle near Rosthern, Sask. They arrested him, but Sanderson shortly after went into “medical distress,” and died in police custody, according to RCMP.
The Saskatoon Police Service is investigating Sanderson’s death, supervised by the Saskatchewan serious incident response team.
Federal minister visits James Smith Cree Nation
Other families continue to hold funerals.
The services for Bonnie Burns and Gregory Burns, a mother and son, were supposed to be Tuesday. But when Bonnie’s partner, Brian (Buggy) Burns realized another one of their sons had a birthday that day, he changed it. The community threw a birthday party that day instead, according to Buggy.
The community also hosted a guest Tuesday. Federal Indigenous Services minister Patty Hajdu attended a funeral in James Smith Cree Nation, according to her press secretary.
“It was very important to be in James Smith Cree Nation today as they laid to rest a beloved community member,” Hajdu wrote in an emailed statement.
“The federal government will be there to support the community as they continue their healing journey. As they’ve told me today, they remain ‘#JamesSmithCreeNationStrong.'”
Indigenous Services has said Ottawa will help the community with things like some funeral costs, and hotels and food for people who were displaced due to the violence, and for security in James Smith.
Laying a brother and best friend to rest
Now, Burns says the anger is gone.
“Still a little bit ticked off he got the easy way out,” Burns said of Myles Sanderson.
For now, he’s focused on getting through the next few days. On Wednesday, Earl’s body will be sent back to James Smith Cree Nation for his funeral Saturday morning.
The last time Burns spoke with his brother, he was at their father’s place. Earl was with his two grandsons on quads —a nice visit, he said.
The last one they would have together.
“He was a good friend. My best friend.”