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'Bring our women home': Landfill search for women's remains could cost up to $184M

WINNIPEG — A search for the remains of two First Nations women at a Winnipeg-area landfill could take up to three years and cost $184 million, but family members and Indigenous leaders say it must go ahead.
A teepee is shown as Christopher Traverse, Chief of Lake St. Martin First Nation speaks to the media at Winnipeg's Brady Landfill just outside the city, Thursday, April 6, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

WINNIPEG — A search for the remains of two First Nations women at a Winnipeg-area landfill could take up to three years and cost $184 million, but family members and Indigenous leaders say it must go ahead.

"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 Nation women in landfills," Grand Chief Cathy Merrick of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs told a news conference Friday.

A study examining whether a successful search is possible, obtained by The Canadian Press,looked at the various scenarios and challenges that come with searching a landfill and concluded a canvass of the Prairie Green Landfill is feasible.

It warns there are risks due to exposure to toxic chemicals and asbestos. But it says forgoing a search could be more harmful for the families of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran. 

"The impact of not conducting a search and humanitarian recovery for remains of Morgan and Marcedes, when it is possible that they are in the Prairie Green Landfill, could have long-lasting repercussions on the families, friends, loved ones and First Nations and Indigenous communities in Manitoba and across Canada," the report says.

Cambria Harris, who took her rage to Parliament Hill in December and demanded governments take the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls more seriously, said Friday she has no place to lay flowers down for her mother.

"We have no place to go to send our condolences or pay our respects to our mothers who we have lost," she said.

Myran's sister Jorden Myran said there shouldn't be a question of searching the landfill or not. "It breaks my heart that I don't have a grave to take my niece and nephew to this Mother's Day."

Federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller said he hoped to meet with the families in the next couple of weeks to look at next steps after his office looks over the report.

"Yes, it's a substantial amount of money. But, as the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said, what signal do you send if you don't search for First Nations bodies that have been disposed as if they were trash, which they are absolutely not? They're sacred and they are to be honoured," he said.

The family of Harris criticized Miller for asking during a phone call this week where they stood on a possible search.

Melissa Normand, a cousin of Harris, said she was "appalled" by the minister. "It's disgusting. We're going to bring our women home."

Both of the women were members of Long Plain First Nation in southwestern Manitoba. Long Plain Chief Kyra Wilson said abandoning a search is not an option.  

"No one is going to tell us otherwise. We are going to do that work with or without (government). And if you're going to support us, we're grateful for that. And if not, get out of the way."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government will support in the grieving and healing process. "We know how atrocious and how difficult this is for the families and we will do whatever we can to help."

Winnipeg police said in December that they believed the remains of Harris and Myran are in the landfill north of the city. But police said they would not be searching the site because of the passage of time and the large volume of material deposited there. 

It's not guaranteed a search would locate the remains, says the study. It could take between one and three years and would cost $84 million to $184 million. 

Ottawa provided $500,000 to the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs for the study. Merrick said she is optimistic Ottawa will fund the search. 

Police believe the women's remains were left in a garbage bin three days apart in early May 2022, says the report. The contents of the dumpster were sent to the Prairie Green Landfill on May 16. 

Jeremy Skibicki has been charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of the two women, as well as two others: Rebecca Contois, whose remains were found at the Brady Landfill, and an unidentified women Indigenous leaders have named Mashkode Bizhiki'ikwe, or Buffalo Woman. Police have also not found her remains. 

Miller's office said the government is also reviewing a proposal from the committee to search the city-run Brady landfill.

Some of the biggest concerns outlined in the report were around health and safety. Hazardous materials teams are recommended to be on site at all times to monitor air quality, act as safety officers and perform decontamination of personnel who are in an excavation pit or working closely with excavated materials.

The committee says using a conveyor belt to search through debris would be the best option. 

In order to proceed with a search, Prairie Green would need to submit a proposal to a regulatory body to approve the excavation and transportation of materials. 

The study also calls for increased funding for social supports and homeless shelters. It recommends mandatory GPS tracking systems and rear-facing cameras in garbage trucks in Canada, as well as surveillance video installed at entrances and exits at landfills. 

Premier Heather Stefanson said she had not seen the report and her heart goes out to the families. 

"Every time we go through another milestone on this it, it's a reminder on the horrific situation that we're dealing with."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 12, 2023.  

Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press