Saskatchewan RCMP Sgt. Cliff Joanis knows the children of James Smith Cree Nation well.
The First Nation northeast of Saskatoon is a hockey community and he’d cross paths with kids from there during tournaments where his own children were playing. His daughter was even coached by a member.
Joanis wanted to help when, in September, 11 people were killed and 18 were injured in a mass stabbing at James Smith and nearby village of Weldon.
So he organized a donation drive for hockey equipment to give to young people in the community.
“From Cliff’s perspective, he wanted to do something in almost a humanitarian way,” said Staff Sgt. Brian Kelly, with the Saskatchewan RCMP’s Indigenous Policing Unit. Kelly and Joanis are also members of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band in northern Saskatchewan.
“He had a personal connection, but it’s also important for us to show that we’re fathers and mothers, and we care as much as the next person.”
Many James Smith children witnessed the rampage, some hiding behind furniture while family members were attacked. The suspect, Myles Sanderson, died in police custody shortly after his arrest.
After the slayings, a lot of the focus was on the victims’ families and the adults, said Kelly. But Joanis wanted to focus on the youth.
After the speaking with the community’s education director, the RCMP’s Indigenous unit started its drive.
“We said: ‘Let’s do it,’” Kelly said.
“There are some families that find it hard to afford the equipment and hockey is an activity that James Smith Cree Nation youths are active with.”
The RCMP posted an internal memo asking for donations. Drop-off locations were set up in Regina, Prince Albert and Saskatoon and for months RCMP members brought equipment.
A total of 45 bags — filled with water bottles, tape, pads, skates, helmets and other equipment — were given to the kids. They were delivered on Dec. 13.
Another $1,500 was raised so the youth can add a heater in the outdoor change room next to the community ice rink.
“They were a little standoffish at first, but it wasn’t long before they started a pickup game in the gym,” Kelly said.
For Kelly, it was most rewarding to see the kids’ response.
“It wasn’t just thrown into the corner, and they walked away,” he said. “They were in the bags checking stuff out and playing and talking about how they liked certain things.”
Since the mass slaying, leaders in the community have been looking for ways to keep children busy, provide hope for the future and protect another generation of Indigenous children from trauma, which many older family members faced from residential schools.
“When something like this happens, that’s when you start looking at your community as a whole, and try to be strong for our young people, show them that we still care, we love them,” Alvin Moostoos, vice-chief of James Smith Cree Nation, has said to The Canadian Press.
“We’re continuing to work for our youth. We have to keep these young people busy through sports and recreation programs.”
The Indigenous Policing Unit has challenged the youth to a hockey game and Kelly insists it be in the near future.
“(One youth’s) response was ‘Well how about tomorrow?’ I said: ‘I’m going to need a bit of time to get my legs back to hockey strength.’”
Kelly said RCMP members will be back, though, and he hopes the game will bring the community together.
“It wasn’t something that we did to celebrate the RCMP,” he said. “It was truly about trying to make a positive impact with the youth, and really focusing on their health, mental health and wellness for years to come.”