Chiefs, families push for search for remains at Winnipeg landfill that could take years, cost up to $184M

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

A search for the remains of two First Nations women at a Winnipeg-area landfill must be done, regardless of cost, or it sends a dark message that Indigenous women and girls are disposable, say First Nations leaders and the families of three women police believe were victims of a serial killer.

A study examining whether a successful search is possible says it could take up to three years and cost $184 million. 

The study looked at the various scenarios and challenges that come with searching a landfill and concluded a canvass of the Prairie Green landfill is feasible.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs held a news conference Friday to discuss the results and share next steps.

Leadership from the assembly, members of Long Plain First Nation and family members of Rebecca Contois, Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran — three Indigenous women whom Jeremy Skibicki is accused of killing — are in attendance. 

An aerial shot shows a vast, snow-covered field.
An aerial shot shows the Prairie Green landfill in the rural municipality of Rosser in Manitoba, north of Winnipeg. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

The feasibility study warns of “considerable risks” in a search due to exposure to toxic chemicals and asbestos, but that forgoing the search could be more harmful for the families of Harris and Myran.

The remains of Contois were found at the City of Winnipeg’s Brady Road landfill in June 2022. Winnipeg police have said they believe Harris and Myran are somewhere within Prairie Green, a private facility in the rural municipality of Rosser.

The report says that not conducting the search could cause considerable distress to the victims’ family members, as well as First Nations and Indigenous communities in Manitoba and across Canada.

Cathy Merrick, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, echoed that sentiment, saying that not conducting the search would send a dark message to First Nations people across the country that Canada’s governments condone the act of disposing of women in landfills. 

“It breaks my heart to say these words: disposing of our women in landfills,” she said. 

“These women were all loved, they were cherished. Families should not feel like the odds are stacked against them in bringing closure to their grief.”

WATCH | Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs grand chief speaks about the impact of not conducting a search: 

Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs grand chief says not conducting landfill search for remains sends troubling message

3 hours ago

Duration 0:52

Cathy Merrick, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, says not conducting a search of the Prairie Green landfill sends a message that Canada’s governments don’t care about First Nations women being disposed of in landfills.

An Indigenous-led committee spearheaded by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs commissioned the feasibility study after police said they would not be searching the Prairie Green site because of the passage of time and the large volume of material deposited there.

The committee included family members, First Nations leaders, forensic experts and representatives from the province and the city.

The study says it’s not guaranteed a search would locate the women’s remains.

It could take one to three years and would cost $84 million to $184 million.

Signs and red dresses hang on a fence outside a landfill south of Winnipeg.
A sign with a photo of Rebecca Contois, whose partial remains were found at Brady Road landfill, outside the dump in south Winnipeg earlier this year. (Alexia Bille/Radio-Canada)

The report says police believe the women’s remains were left in a garbage bin three days apart in early May 2022. The contents of the dumpster were sent to the Prairie Green landfill on May 16.

Skibicki has been charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of the three women, as well as a fourth who remains unidentified but whom Indigenous leaders have named Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe, or Buffalo Woman.

Police have not found her remains.

The report makes several recommendations to prevent tragedies like this from happening again, Merrick said. 

Those recommendations include making GPS tracking mandatory in garbage trucks, ensuring garbage trucks have rear-facing cameras so operators can see what is pouring into them, and installing video surveillance at landfill entrances and exits. 

Those are in addition to recommendations that address the root causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls, such as providing more funding for addictions and mental health supports, and for homeless shelters. 

The report says governments should consider potential societal costs of conducting a search, including the emotional impact on families.

“Nothing about a potential search of this size and scale is easy, and the toll on the families and First Nations and Indigenous communities must be considered with the appropriate supports being made available,” it says.

“Until Marcedes and Morgan are properly returned home, these women, their families and all our communities endure a sacrilege.”

Search plans proposed in the report take into consideration family wishes, traditional teachings, hazards and risk, search processes, equipment and personnel requirements, timelines and costs.

The committee referred to studies on other landfill searches and says they are complex, can be extensive and there is no “one-size-fits-all approach.”

WATCH | Cambria Harris talks about turning grief into advocacy:

Young Winnipeg woman fights to escape her family’s horrifying history with landfills

1 month ago

Duration 8:58

For months Cambria Harris, 22, has been fighting for a search of Prairie Green landfill, just outside Winnipeg, where it’s believed her mother’s remains were dumped last year. CBC News spent time with Harris as she discovered a painful family history with landfills – and pushed governments to approve a search for her mother’s remains.

Some of the biggest concerns outlined in the report were around health and safety. Hazardous materials teams are recommended to be on site at all times to monitor air quality, act as safety officers and perform decontamination of personnel who are in an excavation pit or working closely with excavated materials.

Another concern is the possibility of side-slope failure. The report says excavating along a slope of debris could result in a landslide.

The committee says using a conveyor belt to search through debris would be the best option.

In order to proceed with a search, Prairie Green would need to submit a proposal to a regulatory body to approve the excavation and transportation of materials.

The report doesn’t say who should pay for the search.

It was submitted last week to the office of federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller. Ottawa provided $500,000 to the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs for the study.

Cambria Harris says in the report it feels like she has been living in a “horror movie” since she found out about her mother’s killing and the police decision not to search the landfill.

Harris took her rage to Parliament Hill in December and demanded governments take the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls more seriously.

“These women were never respected in life, and they were failed miserably by governments and different levels of systems,” she wrote.

“In life and death, we still failed them by making decisions not to search for remains known to be there for months.”

Support is available for anyone affected by details of this case. If you require support, you can contact Ka Ni Kanichihk’s Medicine Bear Counselling, Support and Elder Services at 204-594-6500, ext. 102 or 104 (within Winnipeg), or 1-888-953-5264 (outside Winnipeg).

Support is also available via Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Liaison unit at 1-800-442-0488 or 204-677-1648.

People outside Manitoba can call 1-844-413-6649, an independent, national, toll-free support call line that provides emotional assistance.

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