Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Family and supporters gather to protest all levels of governments' lack of action in funding a search of Winnipeg's landfills for missing women at Portage and Main in Winnipeg on August 3.JOHN WOODS/The Canadian Press

Prominently featured at the start of Manitoba’s budget is a land acknowledgement that commits the government to working with the province’s Indigenous peoples “in the spirit of truth, reconciliation and collaboration.”

Yet that same government is rejecting calls from the Indigenous community to search a Winnipeg-area landfill for the bodies of two of its daughters, Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran.

Jeremy Skibicki has been charged with the first-degree murder of those two women, as well as that of Rebecca Contois and an unidentified person that Indigenous leaders have given the name “Buffalo Woman.”

The remains of Ms. Harris and Ms. Myran are believed to have been transported to the Prairie Green landfill in May of 2022. Since then, their grieving families have been treated shabbily by the government and police. These actions are the very opposite of the spirit of reconciliation.

For months, police investigators kept secret their conclusion that the bodies were likely at Prairie Green. They allowed the families to go on searching for their loved ones, to go on hoping they were alive. Then, when police announced murder charges against Mr. Skibicki, they said it would be infeasible to search the landfill, a view later contradicted by expert opinion.

More recently, police reacted to search-the-landfill and anti-officer graffiti not with humility, not by respecting the community’s anguish, but by referring those incidents to their Major Crimes Unit.

Meanwhile, Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson has refused to conduct a search, citing health and safety risks and uncertain prospects of success. Neither objection stands up to scrutiny.

Safety is always a concern. A federally funded expert study into search feasibility did warn of “considerable risks” owing to asbestos and toxic chemicals. But that study concludes the danger can be mitigated with proper gear and training.

If a search is conducted, the study is correct that “the safety of all members involved in such a process is of highest priority.” Any contract to search Prairie Green must specify that. A longstanding maxim of search and rescue operations is not to risk one life to save another. That applies to this recovery effort as well.

A landfill search would likely not be cheap nor quick. The area thought to contain the women’s remains received refuse for another 34 days after their presumed arrival. How long it could take to find them is not known. The study suggests planning for a prolonged search, and said it could cost as much as $184-million over 36 months.

However, there’s no reason the province should bear the entire cost. Reconciliation is a task for all levels of government. A cost-sharing agreement that leaves the federal government paying more than half the tab, given its deeper pockets, would be fair.

Even if the province had to pay the full amount, the same Manitoba budget that speaks so respectfully about reconciliation shows that a three-year bill for $184-million would be the equivalent of less than 1 per cent of provincial spending this year alone.

Ms. Stefanson’s other stated concern is more easily dealt with. It’s true that, as with any search, there is no guarantee of success. But the Premier misses a critical point with that seemingly practical objection.

Searching for these women would be a statement of solidarity. It would tell the families and the broader Indigenous community that their concerns and needs are shared; that what is heart-rendingly important to them is important to all Canadians.

A successful search could bring some measure of peace to the families of the victims. But even an unsuccessful effort would demonstrate that the province and the country have heard and understood their sorrow. That alone may be a form of solace.

Real reconciliation with Indigenous communities requires much more than pro forma land acknowledgments. Reconciliation requires respect on the part of politicians and police. It requires listening to Indigenous communities and their needs.

The families want Prairie Green searched. Their call, and their pain, should be heeded.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe