Myles Sanderson parole decisions | John L. Hill

By John L. Hill

Law360 Canada (September 7, 2022, 12:31 PM EDT) --
John Hill
John L. Hill
Canada’s Minister of Public Safety, Marco Mendicino, has assured us that there will be an investigation into the decision by the Parole Board of Canada to cancel the suspension of Myles Sanderson, an Indigenous inmate who, once released, went on the run and now stands accused of the deadly knife attacks at the James Smith Cree Nation that resulted in 10 homicides.

Although the minister added that the parole board investigation into its decision “will not end there,” the minister is really using the investigation to lay the blame for the massacre at the feet of two parole board members who voted to cancel Sanderson’s suspension. It is actually a dog whistle to defer blame for the tragedy on two individuals instead of rallying public opinion that might want to take a deeper dive into how we deal with larger issues in our correctional system.

It is not as though we have not seen it all before. In 1995, the country was shocked that Terry Fitzsimmons who had been an inmate at Kingston Penitentiary was released directly to the street, had his statutory release suspended, then cancelled, only to go on a killing spree, in that case with three victims.

When these events unfold, we expect there will be sensational news coverage that will die down shortly after the suspect is apprehended. There will be an investigation that will be nothing more than a whitewash of underlying systemic issues. Worse, there will be another killing spree in future.

Would it not be better had the minister announced that his department was about to launch a thorough examination of how such incidents unfold and how the underlying problems can best be addressed early on?

In the Sanderson case, whether he should be found responsible for the murders or not, we get a glimpse of a very troubled youth. He grew up on the James Smith Cree Nation reserve near Weldon, Sask., and raised in a home where he endured marital strife between his parents, physical and emotional abuse as a child, poverty and poor education. He began using alcohol and drugs at age 14 and had several run-ins with the police. He was quick to anger and sometimes acted out violently. We can only suspect that much of his attitudes toward authority were shaped by his incarceration and his treatment when being charged for importation of contraband into the institution.

Nonetheless, he cascaded through the system and ended up being placed in a minimum-security healing lodge in Saskatchewan. From there he served two-thirds of his sentence until he was returned to society on statutory release with strict conditions designed to assist in his reintegration into society. Conditions included abstention from alcohol and drugs, obtaining psychological therapy and refraining from associating with woman without the express written approval of his parole officer.

All these conditions are familiar to anyone who has assisted an inmate going for release before the parole board. One might have expected that a man with his background would surely not take compliance with his conditions seriously and might well get caught using drugs or alcohol or abandoning therapy sessions. Not Sanderson. He was compliant except on one aspect. He was reincarcerated for reuniting with his girlfriend without notice to his community parole officer.

In review of his case before the parole board, the board would obviously be concerned that associating with the woman may have resulted in her physical harm or her complaint about being forced into the association. Neither was the case. With no real harm done and progress being made on underlying criminogenic factors, it is understandable and admirable that the board members voted in favour of suspension cancellation.

Instead of playing the blame game, perhaps the minister should look further into crime prevention. Let’s identify and treat troubled youth, especially those on impoverished Aboriginal reserves. We know that the number of Indigenous offenders in the prison system is disproportionate to their numbers in society. A minister of public safety should be looking how to ensure the public is safe in years to come.

John L. Hill practised and taught prison law until his retirement. He holds a J.D. from Queen’s and LL.M. in constitutional law from Osgoode Hall. He is also the author of Pine Box Parole: Terry Fitzsimmons and the Quest to End Solitary Confinement (Durvile & UpRoute Books), which was published Sept. 1. Contact him at

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