Photo: Chief Robert Head of Peter Chapman, one of the bands that make up James Smith Cree Nation, shakes hands with TryCycle Data Systems CEO John MacBeth at the unveiling of the new FirstAlerts emergency alert system on February 14, 2024 (Pratyush Dayal/CBC).


New emergency alert system for James Smith Cree Nation

Guests: Chief Robert Head, Edward Lennard Busch; host Matt Galloway
CBC Radio’s The Current is a meeting place of perspectives with a fresh take on issues that affect Canadians today.
Listen to the interview here

MG: It was an unthinkable tragedy. A year and a half ago, the James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan was the site of Canada’s worst stabbing incident. Myles Sanderson killed 11 people and injured 17 others. Earlier this month, a coroner’s inquest resulted in a number of recommendations to make the community safer, including changing the alert system. James Smith Cree Nation has now released its own emergency alert system. Chief Robert Head is from Peter Chapman First Nation, which is one of the three bands that make up James Smith Cree Nation, and he is in our Saskatoon studio. Chief Head, good morning.

CHIEF ROBERT HEAD: Good morning, Matt. Thank you for having me.

MG: Thank you for being here. This inquest, as I mentioned, just recently wrapped up and I know going through the events of a year and a half ago was really difficult for your community. How is it doing now?

CHIEF ROBERT HEAD: Well, the community is still feeling a lot of trauma and sadness and sorrow, pain and suffering. You know, those are lifelong events that are going to take a long time to heal from. And it’s just a matter of working with each and every family, you know, over the years to come.

MG: Is your sense that coming out of it, the community can be stronger?

CHIEF ROBERT HEAD: Well, Matt, we have challenges. You know, safety and security is one of the challenges that we’re facing today. And as you know, every First Nation across Canada faces the similar challenges. So, we need to address those issues first.

MG: Let’s talk about one of them, which is the emergency alert system. What were the issues, because there is a provincial alert system that the RCMP was using a year and a half ago. What were the issues with the emergency alerts that the RCMP sent out during that massacre

CHIEF ROBERT HEAD: Well, the morning of September 4th, 2022, was very chaotic in the First Nation. We had numerous 911 calls going into the main RCMP centre in Saskatchewan, and the information was all over the map on the reserve. So, we had calls here, there and pretty much everywhere. And so that made it difficult for the RCMP to respond to the overall incident as a bigger picture. They were just chasing, you know, these calls across the community. So, Myles was able to, you know, walk around the community, drive around a community, and continue his rampage. And if we would have had an emergency alert system, you know, we could have got the message out instantly that, you know, we had an armed assailant randomly attacking residents of the community. Please shelter in place. Barrier your doors, keep safe, you know, phone 911 if you see anything. That would have been an easy message to get out. It would have been instantaneous, because the application works through your cell phone. It’s like the national emergency information, you know, alert system that they use

MG: Like the Amber alerts.

CHIEF ROBERT HEAD: Yeah, like the Amber alerts. Exactly. It works exactly like that. But it’s through this program called Talking Stick. This Talking Stick is actually a peer-to-peer counselling advice program where a person can log on and they can talk to someone in a First Nations community and they can just, you know, run some advice off of them, or talk to them about their feelings or, you know, just talk to somebody if you ever feel sad or lonely or something like that. And it’s a good program. There’s 25,000 First Nation people log on to this program in Saskatchewan. And it’s TryCycle data that put out the app. And the CEO John MacBeth was in the community, and he introduced this new part of it, which is the alert. If you download the Talking Stick app onto your phone, any cell phone from the App Store, you can select what community you’re from. And if you select that community, like in our case, it’ll James Smith Cree Nation, it’ll allow the emergency response team in our community to issue apps just for those people that have selected that they’re from James Smith Cree Nation. So, it’ll be like a localized alert for our community only

MG: And that would be controlled by the community itself.

CHIEF ROBERT HEAD: Yes.

MG: So those alerts would go out specifically, so it would be the community that controlled when the alerts go out.

CHIEF ROBERT HEAD: Yes, it would be our emergency management response team that would determine when an alert should go out. And of course, every First Nation will have that in their First Nation. And they’ll need to do a verification process before alerts are issued. So, there will be a little slight process for every nation. But we will determine what that is. And we’ll get those alerts out.

MG: And your hope is that everybody in the community would have, I mean, it’s as good as, you know, how widespread it is, but your hope would be that everybody would have that app on their phone.

CHIEF ROBERT HEAD: It would be the hope. But like I was saying on the other day, like the young people are the ones that are technologically inclined. And, you know, every young person now has a cell phone, and these alerts will go through these cell phones, you know, without them having to be connected to a service plan with SaskTel, for instance. They’ll still get the alerts and it’ll work good because young people are in every household in First Nations, like our First Nations are just reeming with young people. So, we have lots of young people out there.

MG: What would it have meant? I mean, it’s hard to look back on this, but what do you think it would have meant to have this specific system in place in September of 2022?

CHIEF ROBERT HEAD: Well, I know the one fatality we had was a first responder. The late Gloria Burns was a community first responder, and she was out helping one of the family members to revive one of the victims that was stabbed. And that’s, the attacker there, Myles circled around and came back to that household, and he took her life there while she was helping the family to revive the young man. So that’s one instance where this alert system could have said, you know, attacker at large, you know, attacking random people, stay at home, keep yourself safe, shelter in place type of thing.

MG: This would have saved lives.

CHIEF ROBERT HEAD: Oh, definitely. Definitely. And you know, that’s just one area that’s like a public safety area. The other area could be for natural disasters like we have wildfires, forest fires, grass fires, bushfires that move quickly through communities. We could save countless households and troubles with this app for warnings in regards to those. And then there’s another aspect for missing persons like children or adults, you know, when they go missing, like there’s a window of opportunity there for the community to keep their eyes peeled for this person, you know, within the first few hours of them disappearing. And that’s the best possible time you can have a successful ending to a missing persons report.

MG: And it feels important that it is controlled by the community.

CHIEF ROBERT HEAD: Oh, yes. Sovereignty is the number one issue for First Nations in Canada. We signed our treaties with the Crown of Canada. Like we didn’t sign them with the provinces. So, falling under the provincial alert system is nice, but it’s not timely. It takes hours and hours to get an alert out through that system. And it’s very vague when it does come out.

To read the entire transcript, click here.