The road at Winnipeg’s well-known downtown intersection ran red as protesters gathered to call out government inaction on searching a landfill for the remains of two First Nations women.
People chanted “Search the landfill!” and “Bring our women home!” as red paint was poured onto the pavement, eventually forming the shape of a dress at Portage Avenue and Main Street on Thursday.
The families of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran went on to lead a round dance, a traditional dance in many First Nations cultures, before a crowd of more than 100 people marched to the legislature.
Many donned red clothing, while others had red handprints on their faces to protest the silencing of Indigenous women.
The chants continued as marchers made their way through the city’s downtown with some drivers honking their horns in support.
Pressure has been mounting since Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson said last month that her government would not support a search of the privately owned Prairies Green Landfill north of the city, because it could expose searchers to toxic material.
Families and Indigenous leaders have met with various levels of government to discuss a federally funded feasibility study. It found a search of the landfill is feasible, but many measures would be needed to reduce the risk to workers. It could also cost as much as $184-million.
Experts consulted for the study have said risks could be mitigated and the search could be done safely.
Despite many conversations, Long Plain First Nation Chief Kyra Wilson said there has been little movement and families are tired of talking.
“We’ve been talking about this landfill search for months. We’ve had meeting after meeting, and we’ve talked about what we want and what is needed. The families have talked about what they wanted and what they needed,” she said.
“Right now, we’re done talking.”
The families of Ms. Harris and Ms. Myran met earlier in the day with federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree, who was appointed to the post last week.
Former Crown-Indigenous relations minister Marc Miller criticized the province for shirking responsibilities because it’s responsible for landfills, while Ms. Stefanson accused Mr. Miller of politicizing a tragedy.
Melissa Robinson, Ms. Harris’s cousin, was part of the meeting with Mr. Anandasangaree and said she walked away feeling optimistic.
“For the first time in eight months we were given any of kind hope, and it meant so much.”
Ms. Robinson said the minister read the feasibility study, indicated the work was possible and said he wants a search done.
The minister’s office stated his visit to Winnipeg included meetings with the families, Indigenous leaders and Winnipeg’s mayor.
“[The minister] looks forward to continuing those conversations as we work together to address the elements of the feasibility study,” a spokesperson for Mr. Anandasangaree said in an e-mail.
They added the federal government is committed to acting but cannot do the work alone because of jurisdictional issues.
“Until there is co-operation, conversations around timelines and funding remain unresolved.”
The Premier did not meet with the federal minister, but her office said it was notified that Mr. Anandasangaree would be in the city for other meetings.
A spokesperson said the Manitoba government has not changed its position on a landfill search, citing the need to protect workers’ health and safety, and the need to “protect the integrity of a Manitoba Justice proceeding against the alleged murderer.”
Jeremy Skibicki has been charged with first-degree murder in the killings of the women and two others – Rebecca Contois, whose partial remains were found in a different landfill last year, and an unidentified woman Indigenous leaders are calling Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe or Buffalo Woman. Her remains have not been found.
Mr. Skibicki’s trial is scheduled for next year.
Families said Thursday any search that goes ahead should be Indigenous-led.
“Give us those hazmat suits, and we will train ourselves if you will not retrieve our women, because I am sick of words,” said Ms. Harris’s daughter, Cambria Harris.
Calls for a search have spread coast to coast.
A solidarity rally was held outside the Vancouver Art Gallery on Wednesday. One is planned for Saturday outside the Confederation Building in St. John’s.
Ms. Wilson urged those in the crowd to continue calling for a search.
“For the time being, we have to make our voices loud and heard. And we have to show them that we can make change in this country whether or not they like it.”