It will take at least a year and may cost tens of millions of dollars to search for the remains of two First Nations women believed to be buried in a Winnipeg landfill, but it must be done, Indigenous leaders said Friday after the release of a long-awaited feasibility study into the potential recovery effort.
“If a search is not carried out, it will demonstrate to all First Nations across Canada that this government condones the despairing act of disposing of First Nations women in landfills,” Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Cathy Merrick said at a news conference Friday.
The study concluded it could take between 12 and 36 months to search for the remains of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran, and would likely cost between $84-million and $184-million, depending on the time frame.
“But I want to remind everyone here, you cannot put a price on the lives of First Nations women – or the horrific and profound loss these families have experienced,” Chief Merrick said.
Ms. Harris, 39, and Ms. Myran, 24, who are both members of Long Plain First Nation, are believed to have been the victims of accused serial killer Jeremy Skibicki.
The 35-year-old is charged with the first-degree murder of two other women: 26-year-old Rebecca Contois, and a woman who has not yet been identified but whom elders have named Buffalo Woman.
Mr. Skibicki was arrested in May, 2022, after Ms. Contois’s partial remains were found in a garbage bin outside an apartment building. Additional remains were then recovered from a local landfill known as the Brady Road landfill.
Police revealed in December that the remains of Ms. Harris and Ms. Myran are believed to be at the Prairie Green Landfill, just north of the city. But the force said recovering them would be too difficult and dangerous. That decision – and the revelation that investigators had reached it months earlier, knowingly leaving the women in the landfill as their families continued to search for them – sparked outrage from the victims’ families and communities
Operations at the landfill were paused in response to the pressure, and an Indigenous-led working group was assembled to assess the feasibility of a search. That study was completed late last month, and has now been delivered to the victims’ families and the federal government.
According to an executive summary of the 55-page report provided by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, a search of the landfill was deemed feasible but not without “considerable risks,” because of toxic chemicals and asbestos.
The report stresses that a successful outcome is not guaranteed, and it recommends the search involve a strategy using a conveyer belt system to sort materials.
The report also recommends more funding for homeless shelters and culturally-specific social supports. It calls for changes to waste-disposal protocols, including equipping all trucks with GPS and camera equipment, to ensure better tracking and organization within landfills.
“We always knew from day one that it was feasible and that’s why we are here today – to continue sharing that message to the greater community, that it is feasible to look for our Indigenous women when they go missing or they are murdered,” Long Plain Chief Kyra Wilson said Friday.
In an e-mail Friday, Winnipeg Police Chief Danny Smyth declined to comment on the feasibility study, and said the police service’s focus “is on the pending prosecution of Jeremy Skibicki.”
Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham said in an e-mail Friday he expects the federal and provincial governments to take the lead in responding to the study. He noted the city has already implemented the recommendations surrounding landfill operations, including equipping garbage-collection vehicles with GPS so their loads can be tracked.
Aissa Diop, a spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller, said he has received the final report and is reviewing it.
Ms. Myran’s sister Jorden Myran said at the news conference Friday she is heartbroken that she does not have a gravesite to visit with her niece and nephew.
Ms. Harris’s daughter Cambria said they have been devastated that there has even been any question of whether to search.
“When people tell you that they will not search for your missing loved one, you don’t have to take ‘no’ as an answer,” she said.