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De-Anne Sack, centre, of Sipekne’katik First Nation, reads a poem in dedication to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women as newly appointed Interim National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Joanna Bernard, third from left, and other chiefs and delegates stand in support during the Assembly of First Nations annual general assembly in Halifax on July 13. Sack was seconding the emergency resolution that denounces all levels of government for refusing to search for the remains of murdered First Nations women in the Prairie Green landfill in Winnipeg.Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

The Assembly of First Nations denounced federal and provincial governments’ refusal to search a Winnipeg landfill for the remains of Indigenous women on Thursday after Minister of Crown-Indigenous Affairs Marc Miller said that he has no jurisdiction to step in and launch his own investigation.

It was the third and final day of the AFN general assembly in Halifax where controversy has cast a shadow, after the deposing of former national chief RoseAnne Archibald. Still, resolutions were passed around charter renewal, First Nations policing, and to address a new report that described rampant sexual misconduct and harassment within the AFN.

On Thursday, emotions were strong as the AFN demanded federal and provincial governments take immediate and concrete action to locate the remains of Morgan Harris, Marcedes Myran and an unidentified woman whose remains have not been located and whom elders have named Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe (Buffalo Woman).

They called on Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson to reconsider her decision not to launch a search of the Prairie Green landfill in Winnipeg and to work with the federal government to conduct searches of both Prairie Green and the Brady Road landfill.

“We need to bring some closure to the families. We need to help these families heal,” said Sipekne’katik First Nation Chief Michelle Glasgow, who raised the emergency motion on Thursday afternoon. “If they’re going to look, they’re going to find more, and we need to support them.”

Judy Wilson, a chief of Neskonlith in British Columbia, said it’s heart wrenching to hear the federal ministers admit there hasn’t been enough work on this issue. “We really have to do better for our women and girls and two-spirit because as we push and push a lot hasn’t changed,” said Ms. Wilson, a long-time advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. “Trudeau should’ve been here, he should’ve been able to address this: not just send the minister. We need to have Trudeau intervene and say this has to happen right away.”

Police announced in December murder charges against a Winnipeg man in the deaths of four women, including Rebecca Contois, whose remains were discovered at Brady Road, and Buffalo Woman.

During that announcement, police revealed they had determined months earlier that the remains of Ms. Harris and Ms. Myran, two Long Plain First Nation women, were likely at Prairie Green, but they hadn’t told the women’s families and had decided it would be too difficult and dangerous to execute a search.

Winnipeg police have said they don’t know where Buffalo Woman’s remains are.

Protesters have blocked the Brady Road landfill since last week in response to the Manitoba government’s decision against a search.

De-Anne Sack of Sipekne’katik First Nation in Nova Scotia, who seconded the motion, read a poem dedicated to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls written by Tasheena, an Algonquin artist. Chiefs, including AFN interim national chief Joanna Bernard, stood around her with their heads bowed.

After the reading, Ms. Sack called for a search of the landfills. “We need to honour our women. Search the landfills. Do the right thing. We need closure. We need proper ceremonies. We need to honour their spirits. Our women are sacred. Our women are not trash,” Ms. Sack said.

Minutes earlier, in a speech addressing hundreds of Indigenous people, delegates and chiefs in the room, Mr. Miller blamed Manitoba for failing to search the Prairie Green landfill, calling it “unfair” and “not the right thing to do.” He said the federal government cannot step in unless the province gives jurisdictional permission.

“The federal government can’t nationalize a wastewater system for the major cities in a province,” Mr. Miller told hundreds of delegates and chiefs. “As the federal government we absolutely commit to trying and we’re ready and willing to help.”

In an interview, he described a “massive amount” of frustration in a process that has been “heartless” toward family members looking for answers about their loved ones.

Ms. Stefanson immediately fired back, defending her decision not to search the landfill and saying that Mr. Miller has “chosen to inflame and distort,” the situation with his comments at the AFN. She said she has met with the families of victims and extended her deepest condolences.

“As the premier of Manitoba, however, I also have other responsibilities. These have required that government address difficult considerations on the viability of a search of the Prairie Green Landfill. Based on an objective review of these issues, we have made the difficult decision that such a search is not viable. There can plainly be no guarantees on the outcome of an exceedingly challenging and complex search, and the immediate and longer-term human safety and workplace risks involved cannot be ignored,” she wrote in a statement.

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh also issued a statement condemning Mr. Miller, saying Ottawa is “pointing fingers and hiding behind jurisdictions to avoid taking action.”

“Families are being abandoned by all levels of government who are failing to treat what all Parliamentarians in the House of Commons recognized as a Canada-wide emergency with the urgency it deserves,” he wrote. “This is a national shame.”

Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew said Thursday that families should be at the centre of the conversation aimed at coming up with a solution.

“We should be able to find another approach here that would show respect to the families by saying you know what, ‘We’re actually going to try – we’re not just going to throw up our hands.’ ”

The AFN also denounced any court orders or injunctions that would remove protesters from Manitoba landfills.

On Thursday, a Manitoba judge urged the city of Winnipeg and protesters to try to reach a compromise after city hall asked for a court injunction to remove a blockade that was set up at the city-run Brady Road landfill last week. Justice Sheldon Lanchbery pointed to a common practice in labour disputes, where picket lines slow traffic and protesters hand out pamphlets, but do not block traffic completely.

Justice Lanchbery adjourned the matter until Friday.

The federal government commissioned a study earlier this year that said a search of the Prairie Green landfill for the women’s remains is feasible, but would come with hazards, no guarantee of success, and could take up to three years at a cost of up to $184-million.

In an e-mail, district manager Barry Blue of Wastewater Connections of Canada, which owns Prairie Green, said the area of interest identified by police in June of 2022 has been closed and “will be kept inactive out of respect for the families of the missing women.”

With reports from Molly Hayes and The Canadian Press

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