A specialized RCMP team that deals with high-risk situations was not immediately available to respond to a stabbing rampage and hunt for a mass killer in Saskatchewan because of contract negotiations, internal emails show.

Documents obtained under freedom of information laws show Ottawa’s Emergency Response Team-Special Activities Group, also known as ERT-SAG, was initially offered to help as Mounties responded the stabbing attacks on the James Smith Cree Nation and in the nearby village of Weldon on Sept. 4, 2022.

Chaos descended on the community as Myles Sanderson, 32, moved from home to home, busting down doors and attacking people. Eleven were killed and 17 were injured.

Sanderson was arrested four days later and died in police custody.

Emails between Assistant Commissioner Rhonda Blackmore, the commanding officer of the Saskatchewan RCMP, and other high-ranking Mounties show officers were working to catch up to Sanderson’s erratic movements. 

His brother, Damien Sanderson, was also considered a suspect at the time but was later found to be one of the victims.

“The two males are mobile in a stolen vehicle, but we have no idea where they are or where they might be headed,” Blackmore wrote to her colleagues. 

A few hours after the killings began, Dennis Daly, who was then in charge of contract and Indigenous policing, emailed Blackmore about getting ERT-SAG out of Ottawa to aid Saskatchewan Mounties. Daly is now commanding officer of the Nova Scotia RCMP.

ERT-SAG offers tactical responses during critical incidents, RCMP said in an email. It can provide specialized support to local detachments and has access to specific resources and tactics. The team has been described in previous media reports as having specialized techniques to locate suspects. 

Later that morning, Deputy Commissioner Brian Brennan emailed colleagues, including then-RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki, an update on the situation in Saskatchewan. 

“We are engaged with Rhonda to ascertain if there is anything we can assist them with from a (national headquarters) perspective,” Brennan wrote. 

“As mentioned before, we are exploring the deployment of SAG.”

But not long after, Blackmore wrote in an email that the specialized team would not be available. At the time, Mounties were aware that there were at least nine people dead, 16 crime scenes and a killer on the loose in a stolen vehicle. 

“Dennis had offered SAG but it is not available as they are apparently in between contracts,” Blackmore wrote. 

RCMP headquarters said in an email that the specialized team was at some point deployed to Saskatchewan in response to the killings. But Mounties would not provide information on when the group arrived or how long it was delayed by contract negotiations. 

Blackmore confirmed in a recent interview with The Canadian Press that Saskatchewan RCMP made the request for ERT-SAG and the team did eventually arrive but said she could not provide further details.

The National Police Federation, the union representing RCMP officers, said it could not comment on the situation. It did not provide information on the contract negotiation taking place last September. 

James Smith Cree Nation Chief Wally Burns said he still gets emotional looking back on the mass killing. 

It would be a travesty if any delay in resources could have stopped the killer from moving around the community and province, he said, adding even a few hours was crucial.

“Time is of the essence,” Burns said. 

Days of not knowing where Sanderson was has left the community with ongoing trauma and fear, the chief said. Catching him sooner could have made a difference he added.

Blackmore noted that the RCMP received “quite a significant amount of resources” from detachments across the country after the rampage. 

An internal RCMP email, sent after Sanderson was taken into custody, said more than 160 Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Alberta and Ontario RCMP and municipal partner agency employees worked non-stop during the manhunt. A critical incident command centre was set up outside the First Nation’s band office and a regional RCMP emergency response team was deployed.

Blackmore also said the province received air support help from RCMP in Alberta and Ontario.

An email to staff from Lucki after the killer’s capture thanked officers in Saskatchewan and those sent from other divisions for their tireless work.

“It takes incredible sacrifice, courage and skill to keep Canadians safe day in and day out, and I thank you for your commitment to the RCMP and to Canadians.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 15, 2023.

— With files from Jeremy Simes in Regina