HAfter the arrest earlier this month of a fugitive wanted in connection with the stabbing deaths of 11 people, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police hastily called a press conference to announce that Myles Sanderson was “no no longer a threat” to the public.
But when RCMP Assistant Commissioner Rhonda Blackmore described the four-day manhunt, she omitted one key detail: Sanderson, who had been arrested alive, was already dead.
It was almost five minutes after announcing his arrest that Blackmore added that Sanderson died after going into “medical distress” and being taken to hospital.
Reporters covering the press conference were in disbelief. “I have never seen a more flagrant case of the lede being buried,” CTV News’ Siobhan Morris tweeted.
After two massacres in two years – both among the worst in the country’s history – the institutional opacity of Canada’s national police has once again become the focus of criticism. These public communication failures — and a troubled legacy of scandals, lawsuits and police failures — have renewed long-standing questions about the structure of the force.
In the days following Sanderson’s death, questions about police actions and communication with the public continued to mount. National media repeatedly pressed the force after police said they would not release autopsy results.
And it emerged that – despite the fact that earlier in the summer a warrant had been issued for Sanderson’s arrest on unrelated charges – the police did not appear to have been looking for him until he launched his stabbing spree on September 4.
“In many ways, the RCMP has gone from crisis to crisis,” said University of Toronto law professor Kent Roach.
Police have not publicly speculated what sparked the eruption of violence in which Sanderson killed 10 people between the ages of 23 and 78 in the James Smith Cree Nation, an Indigenous community in northern Saskatchewan and from the neighboring village of Weldon.
After the attacks, Sanderson remained at large for four days, with local communities on high alert amid a series of false sightings.
As officers searched for Sanderson, the RCMP itself became the subject of a sprawling public inquiry into its response to another massacre across the country, when a sniper shot and killed 22 people in 12 hours in rural Nova Scotia.
In this case, police did not send out an emergency alert warning residents of the current threat and waited 12 hours to alert the public that the suspect was driving a fake police car. The public inquiry heard that two victims had died in the time it took Canadian police to gain internal approval to tweet a public warning about the suspect.
As the commission wrapped up this week, attorney Sarah McCullough, who represents most of the 22 victims’ families, said the RCMP had demonstrated they were fundamentally untrained, unprepared and unequipped for a massacre. major in a rural area.
During the attack in Saskatchewan, several alerts were sent to warn residents of the threat. The RCMP also worked closely with local police forces, something they were criticized for not doing in Nova Scotia.
“We have certainly seen improvements in their general communications in Saskatchewan, but it is concerning that there is not more information about Mr. Sanderson’s death,” said Roach, author of the recent book Canadian Policing: Why and How It Must Change.
On Wednesday, Saskatchewan’s Chief Coroner announced that two inquests – for the stabbing victims and Myles Sanderson – would be launched in the spring.
“With the suspect deceased, there will be no public criminal trial. Without a public hearing into the facts, it will leave many questions unanswered from the families involved and the public regarding the circumstances leading to the death,” Chief Coroner Clive Weighill said in a statement.
A jury in the inquest will only be able to establish the facts, not guilt, but may also issue recommendations.
“I intend to have an all-Indigenous jury,” Weighill said.
Due to a quirk of Canadian policing, the RCMP oversees both the enforcement of federal criminal law and the operation of contract police services in most provinces and municipalities. Only Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland have their own police forces. But even in Newfoundland, the RCMP does a lot of rural policing.
But that system is under scrutiny again after the murders in Saskatchewan, which exposed RCMP shortcomings in rural and First Nations communities. The force has only one officer dedicated to policing James Smith’s 2,400 Cree Nation residents.
Following the Saskatchewan attack, the James Smith Cree Nation considered creating its own police force to better serve the needs of First Nations residents.
Law enforcement challenges in rural Canada were highlighted in 2019 when two teenage murder suspects evaded capture for weeks as they fled through the wild forests of northern Manitoba . Police only found their bodies after deploying aircraft, heat-sensing technology and dog teams.
“The reality of policing sparsely populated rural areas is something Canada really has to deal with,” said Roach, who called for a substantial overhaul of the force. “How much are Canadians willing to pay to police these communities?