A Time of Horror in a Place of Family and Beauty

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Only 48 hours or so had passed since two brothers had gone on a stabbing rampage, mostly on the James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, that had left 10 people dead and 18 injured and resulted in the end of both men’s lives. But when Amber Bracken, a photographer from Edmonton on assignment for The Times, and I pulled into a horse ranch on the reserve for an arranged meeting with Ivor Wayne Burns and his family, one of the brothers was still alive — and we were met with unexpected chaos.

Mr. Burns was waving a hunting rifle on the large front porch of his house, surrounded by about a dozen family members all shouting and frantically gesturing. They were urging us to quickly get out of our rental car and take shelter inside the house.

Eventually, the police determined that the killer was not in the area, and everyone spilled out into the yard. There, a new arrival had joined the horses, ponies, miniature horses, stables, horse trailers, racing chariots and trucks in various states of repair: a large white tent of the kind used for extended family events.

[Read: In Canada’s Bucolic Prairie Region, a Mass Stabbing Shocks the Country]

It was erected to host a wake and feast to honor Wayne’s sister, Gloria Burns, 61, one of the killers’ 10 victims.

Near the tent, a sacred fire in her memory burned in a firepit made from an old tractor wheel.

While the leadership of James Smith asked journalists to stay away, a request we honored, Mr. Burns had invited Amber and me to his home because his family wanted to talk about what they believed was behind this week’s tragedy, as well as previous murders in the nation of about 1,200 people, which extends over 15,099 hectares of bush and prairie grasslands along the valley of the Saskatchewan River.

Darryl Burns, another of Gloria’s six siblings, was an addiction counselor and an emergency responder, like his sister. But he had quit his job the day before so that he could speak freely about the issues surrounding addiction recovery programs and the scourge of addiction, particularly crystal meth, in his community.

[Read: Second Suspect in Saskatchewan Killings Dies After Capture]

An imposing man physically and intellectually, Darryl told me that while alcohol had long been a problem at James Smith — he said he had once been an alcoholic — the arrival of crystal meth about a decade ago added a new level of violence and gang activity.

Decades of dealing with the community’s substance abuse problems, he said, made it clear to him that they stemmed from the anger, shame and frustration that James Smith’s former residential school students brought home with them — and then passed along to their children by example.

“With the residential schools, they set up a system to make you dysfunctional,” he told me as we sat in the tent, a fierce prairie wind batting against the walls. “Growing up, I learned about how to drink alcohol until you fell down on the ground. I learned about family violence. I learned how to beat my partner. I learned how to sexually abuse women. I learned how to do all that stuff.”

Meth, he said, had only made things much worse.

While Mr. Burns said that many of the programs he and his sister led did seem to be effective, there often wasn’t enough funding to sustain them, meaning they petered out before fulfilling their potential. There is, he added, a desperate need for long-term meth treatment facilities in the community. He was particularly critical of Indigenous leaders throughout Canada for building casinos — he said gambling was a particularly corrosive force and marijuana shops, rather than leading efforts to root drug dealers out of reserves.

“We need our leadership to start campaigning in a good way, a positive way,” he said as family members and friends wandered into the tent to hug him. “If they’re going to campaign, let them say we’re going to look for health, for happiness and well-being in our community.”

Mr. Burns, however, had another message for me, and for the broader world: Life in James Smith is far from constant despair and dysfunction.

“Right now we’re focused on a negative aspect of our community, and it’s unfortunate,” he said as a vivid sunset rose over the trees across the road. “I want people to know there’s a lot of good things that happen out here, a lot of family, a lot of caring, a lot of sharing. I’m proud of who I am, and I’m proud to be part of the family, and I’m proud to be part of this community.”

Queen Elizabeth II, King Charles III

Queen Elizabeth II, the only head of state a majority of Canadians have known, died this week, and The Times is continuing with its extensive coverage of the global mourning and the accession of King Charles III. Here are some initial highlights for those of you who might have missed them.

Trans Canada

  • My colleague based in Toronto, Vjosa Isai, went off to Stratford, Ontario, the town long known to Shakespeare fans around the world. “Then, about a dozen years ago, a new and typically much younger type of cultural enthusiast began showing up in Stratford’s streets: Beliebers, or fans of the pop star Justin Bieber, a homegrown talent,” she wrote.

  • The fall preview from The Times’s Culture desk includes films that will appear at the Toronto International Film Festival, music from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and a graphic memoir about life working in Alberta’s oil sands by Kate Beaton, a cartoonist from Cape Breton.

A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.

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