Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller criticized Manitoba’s “heartless” announcement that it wouldn’t support a landfill search for the remains of two First Nations women – a position he said makes it “logistically impossible” for Ottawa to decide to commit to such a search this summer.
Indigenous leaders in Manitoba have been calling for a search of the Prairie Green landfill since Winnipeg police announced in December that the remains of two Long Plain First Nation women, Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran, are believed to be there. They are among four women believed to be the victims of a serial killer, along with Rebecca Contois, whose remains were discovered at a separate landfill, and another unidentified woman whose remains have not been located.
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs conducted a feasibility study that concluded a search, while lengthy and costly, was possible, but Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson said last week that her government would not fund such a search because of the potential health risks of combing through a landfill contaminated by asbestos and other hazards.
“We’re standing here today willing to work with our partner, the government of Manitoba, but they’re not there and that’s unfortunate to hear,” Mr. Miller told an audience Wednesday at the Assembly of First Nations’ annual general assembly in Halifax. As a result, he said, “we’ve lost the window this summer to actually get something done.”
He said that the logistics of a search, including staffing, would ultimately fall under provincial jurisdiction.
“The federal government’s willing to help, we’re willing to play a role – a very important role in this. But the reality of where we’re working is that the government of Canada can’t nationalize a garbage dump, or the waste disposal system of the City of Winnipeg.”
He said Ottawa would keep putting pressure on Manitoba to take up the search and continue to offer help.
“We do absolutely have to try, as a federal government,” he said. “But I think the reaction that we’ve seen from our partner in Manitoba is one that makes any decision this summer logistically impossible.”
Police announced murder charges against a Winnipeg man last December in the deaths of four women in what they described as a serial killing. During that announcement, investigators revealed they had determined months earlier that the remains of Ms. Harris and Ms. Myran were likely at the Prairie Green landfill north of Winnipeg, but they didn’t tell the women’s families. Police had decided it would be too difficult and dangerous to attempt to mount a search.
The revelation sparked outrage from the community, and led to the commission of a feasibility study into a potential search. That study, completed in April, found that a search would be possible but expensive, taking between 12 and 36 months and costing between $84-million and $184-million, depending on the time frame. It also cited health and safety challenges, including asbestos and toxic chemicals in the landfill.
Mr. Miller said the Manitoba Premier is not wrong about safety concerns for searchers, and that there is no guarantee a search will be successful.
“But we’re doing some very difficult things around the country in terms of the remediation of mines, we’ve done searches before in dumps,” he said.
“The feasibility study says this is doable,” he said. “So we will keep putting pressure on our end, and stepping up and saying we’re there to help, to find some answers. Because I think we need to try.”
Ms. Stefanson repeatedly defended her government’s decision during a meeting of Canada’s premiers in Winnipeg this week.
“My heart goes out to the families – it’s a horrific situation that they’re facing right now – but I’m also the Premier and we have to make what are difficult decisions,” she told a news conference on Wednesday. “I continue to stand by the decision that has been made.”
In a statement Wednesday, Grand Chief Cathy Merrick of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs called on the province to reconsider: “The lack of action and indifference displayed by the province is unacceptable and deserves condemnation. It is a deeply disheartening reflection of the disregard for First Nations lives.”
Jeremy Skibicki was first charged in May, 2022, after the partial remains of Ms. Contois were discovered in a dumpster outside a Winnipeg apartment building, and then at the city’s Brady Road landfill.
In December, police announced additional murder charges against Mr. Skibicki in the deaths of Ms. Harris, Ms. Myran, and a fourth woman who has yet to be identified, but who is also believed to be Indigenous and whom elders have named Buffalo Woman. Though police are confident that the remains of Ms. Harris and Ms. Myran are at the Prairie Green landfill, they have said they do not know where Buffalo Woman’s remains are.
First Nations activists and relatives have also called for a search of the Brady Road landfill, which has been blocked by protesters since last week in response to the Manitoba government’s decision against a search.
Melissa Robinson, a cousin of Ms. Harris, said she walked out of her family’s meeting with the Premier last week after it became clear Ms. Stefanson hadn’t even read through the full feasibility study report.
“I thought, this is a waste of my time,” Ms. Robinson said Tuesday. “You know, how dare you.”
The City of Winnipeg is seeking an injunction against the blockade. The application for an injunction has been stayed until Thursday.
Mr. Miller said Wednesday that he was scheduled to speak with Winnipeg’s mayor that afternoon.
In an e-mail statement, Mayor Scott Gillingham said he used that conversation to urge the minister to give families a formal response to the study as soon as possible.
“The families need a clear indication of the path ahead. The city needs a resolution to the Brady Road protest. And the entire community needs the senior levels of government to reach an agreement on this issue.”