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'Starting to heal': Victim of Saskatchewan mass stabbing wakes in hospital a widow

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Joyce and Earl Burns are shown in this photo. Earl Burns died in the stabbing attacks and his wife, Joyce Burns, is recovering in a Saskatoon hospital. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mickey Djuric

Joyce and Earl Burns were childhood sweethearts. 

They grew up together on James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, first as neighbours, then as husband and wife. 

"It was childhood love," said Victor Sanderson, a younger brother of Joyce Burns. He babysat their children and watched the couple grow old together.

He now visits his sister in a Saskatoon hospital room, where she recently regained consciousness after she was stabbed multiple times in the stomach and neck in a mass killing on the First Nation.

The ashes of her 66-year-old husband sit in an urn next to her bed.

Joyce and Earl Burns were among the 28 people attacked on the First Nation and in the nearby village of Weldon, northeast of Saskatoon, on Sept. 4. 

Eleven people, including Earl Burns, were killed. On Thursday, RCMP said they believe Myles Sanderson, the couple's former son-in-law, was responsible for all the homicides. 

Joyce Burns is the only one of those injured who remains in hospital, say health officials.

Doctors had placed her on life support and her family was surprised when she woke up in late September, said her brother.

"It was really touch and go with how she was doing because her lungs filled up with water and her liver too," Sanderson said from his home in Debden, Sask.

"When she got transferred to Saskatoon, she was pretty much leaving us, but then she just turned around. Her body is starting to heal.

"I'm very happy that she's still with us, very much so."

Sanderson said Earl Burns was more than his brother-in-law. He was a mentor. 

After Earl Burns joined the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry with the Canadian Armed Forces, he convinced Sanderson to join up as well. 

"He taught me: 'Keep your head up high, don't let anybody knock you down, and always stand your ground.'"

When Earl Burns left the military, he started a family with his wife and they eventually became grandparents. He was also a rodeo competitor and a diehard Toronto Maple Leafs fan.

"He was one hell of a guy. He was a jack of all trades. He loved life, he loved his kids, he loved his grandkids more than anything else," Sanderson said.

"He always protected his family in a good way."

Defending his family and community is how residents of the First Nation are remembering Earl Burns.

They said he bought his own school bus years ago and drove students to Bernard Constant Community School every weekday.

There have been reports that on the Sunday morning of the killings, as Burns was wounded, he got in his bus to chase down thesuspect. Others have said he went to get help.

He took his last breath on that bus, said Sanderson. A memorial of flowers from his Sept. 17 funeral was placed near where some say the bus went off the road as he died.

Court documents show that in 2015 the couple's former son-in-law, Myles Sanderson, repeatedly stabbed Earl Burns with a knife and wounded Joyce Burns. He was sentenced to two years less a day in jail. 

Myles Sanderson died after he went into medical distress in RCMP custody on Sept. 7. 

RCMP Assistant Commissioner Rhonda Blackmore said Thursday that investigators now believe Myles Sanderson killed his brother, Damien Sanderson, who had earlier been named as a suspect. 

As his sister begins walking again in the hospital, Victor Sanderson said he's focusing on remembering the laughter — mainly from her husband, who was known for cracking jokes and making people smile. 

"He was a really big part of my life," he said.

"On a serious note, he was always about the kids, really. The future of our children (on James Smith Cree Nation) and how they are doing, and which direction our leaders are taking them."

He said the attacks have brought his family members closer, and also changed everything else.

"Our outlook in James Smith — it's going to be totally different," he said.

"The only way that we can (heal) is to just move forward. Look for brighter days and not let this happen again.

"And don't let anybody forget."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 6, 2022. 

Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press