Manitoba man who spent decades behind bars turned to art to heal in prison

A Manitoba man who is getting another chance to overturn his murder convictions after 25 years in prison says his art and connecting with his culture helped get him through the decades behind bars.

Robert Sanderson was found guilty of three counts of first-degree murder in 1997 and was sentenced to life in prison with no parole eligibility for 25 years in connection with the killing of three men the year prior.

“It was rough,” said Sanderson in a Monday interview with CBC News from Victoria, B.C.

“The first year, second year, third year, and it kept dragging on. Before you know it 10 years, 11 years have gone by. And that’s when you just figure, I’m going to be here for a long time. And I decided that’s when I was going to start making some changes and start doing something for myself.”

Sanderson taught himself to paint in prison, inspired by his Métis and Ojibway roots, all the while maintaining his innocence.

An Ojibway-style painting of a wolf howling at the moon.
Robert Sanderson taught himself to paint during his time in prison and calls it a form of therapy. (Submitted by Robert Sanderson)

“It was like therapy for me. I spent a lot of time with the elders and it was the elders and the close friends that helped me through a lot of stuff, stuck by my side and never gave up on me and helped me a lot,” he said.

“I harboured so much anger, so much hatred. And it was through my culture and working with the elders and doing ceremonies that I was able to somewhat forgive. I don’t have a lot of faith in the judicial system, but it’s helped me to get it out of my heart.”

For the last three years, the Métis man has been out on parole and living in the Vancouver area. Even outside of prison, Sanderson has found value in doing art, capturing the likeness of the Prairies and other elements of nature.

“It does help me emotionally. When I have stuff come up, I can always sit down and just get back in touch with nature,” he said.

Sanderson learned on Monday his case had been referred for a new hearing in the Manitoba Court of Appeal after federal Justice Minister David Lametti determined it likely involved a miscarriage of justice.

Police investigate a West Kildonan property where three people were killed in Winnipeg in 1996. Robert Sanderson was later found guilty of three counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with no parole eligibility for 25 years. (CBC)

This decision comes after the Manitoba Court of Appeal dismissed Sanderson’s appeal in 1999, and he was denied leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada later that year, the Department of Justice said in a Monday news release.

Sanderson applied for a ministerial review of his case in 2017. The following year, his request to be released on bail pending completion of that review was denied. He was released on full parole shortly after that, the release said.

“I really thank [Lametti] for his decision. Obviously he’s going to make a lot of tough decisions, and I’m grateful for his decision, what he did,” Sanderson said.

Lametti’s decision is also welcomed by Innocence Canada, a non-profit organization that advocates for and works to exonerate people convicted of crimes they didn’t commit.

“I was very pleased. The minister’s decision is, I’m sure, the right one. And it was a relief to finally get the decision,” said founding director James Lockyer in a Monday interview.

“It’s been a long, long time — 27 years. But he’s made very good use of it. He’s become a remarkable Indigenous artist in painting, woodworking and sculpture.”

Lockyer says it would mean a lot to have Sanderson’s convictions overturned, even now that he’s out of prison, because it would mean he would not be on parole anymore.

A bison is pictured in an Ojibway-style painting
Robert Sanderson says his art connects him to nature and his culture. (Submitted by Robert Sanderson)

“But I think much more important than that is to get this donkey of these nasty convictions of first-degree murder off his back. He wants to clear his name. That’s what he wants to do, and we’re going to be there to try and help him do that,”
Lockyer said.

However, that won’t happen overnight. Lockyer estimates the process will take more than a year.

In the meantime, Sanderson says he has his art and a strong support network to get him through the tough days.

“The justice minister’s decision is a big step for me. That’s going to help in my journey. And that’s what I’m looking forward to is what comes next.”