Indigenous groups call for federal government to fund searches of Winnipeg-area landfills for remains

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Manitoba First Nations leaders and Indigenous groups have sent a letter calling on the federal government to fund their search of two Winnipeg-area landfills for the remains of homicide victims and call in the United Nations for support.

The signatories say inaction from the Winnipeg Police Service and the city’s police board has forced them to advocate for the families of Marcedes Myran and Morgan Harris, women whose remains are believed to be in the Prairie Green landfill north of Winnipeg.

Police have said they are unsure where the remains of the unidentified woman whom community members have named Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe, or Buffalo Woman, are located.

Police allege all three women — as well as Rebecca Contois, whose partial remains were located in June at the Brady Road landfill in south Winnipeg — were killed by the same man over a two-month period earlier this year.

“Trust has been broken by this decision not to search,” said the letter, which was dated Tuesday.

The faces of three First Nations women are pictured side by side.
Left to right: Morgan Beatrice Harris, Marcedes Myran and Rebecca Contois. Winnipeg police said on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, they have charged Jeremy Skibicki with first-degree murder in the deaths of all three women, as well as a fourth, whom community members have named Buffalo Woman, because police do not know her identity. (Submitted by Cambria Harris, Donna Bartlett and Darryl Contois)

It was signed by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, the Assembly of First Nations, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, the non-profit Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre and the MMIWG2S+ Implementation Committee — a Manitoba organization made up of survivors, family members, knowledge keepers, Indigenous organizations and governments.

It was also signed by Kyra Wilson, the chief of Long Plain First Nation. Both Harris and Myran were members of Long Plain.

Wilson says it’s important for all levels of government to be involved in a search.

“It’s very important that we’re sending a message to everyone that we will be there to support you,” she told CBC News on Tuesday. 

“We will be there to search for your loved ones if they go missing and we know where they are and how to locate them.”

Police believe both Harris and Myran were killed in May, but did not determine until June that their remains were likely at the Prairie Green landfill.

WATCH | Prairie Green landfill, north of Winnipeg, seen from above:

Winnipeg mulls landfill search for remains of 2 slain Indigenous women

4 days ago

Duration 2:02

Winnipeg city officials are working on figuring out how to search a landfill thought to contain the remains of two Indigenous women. A Winnipeg man is charged with murder in their deaths, and two others.

They have said that it would be too difficult to search that landfill, just north of Winnipeg, for the remains because of the length of time that has passed, the presence of tonnes of animal remains and the fact that the trash there has been pressed down by heavy construction clay.

Police board chair’s comments ‘disheartening’: advocate

The letter comes after Winnipeg Police Board chair Coun. Markus Chambers was quoted in other media outlets as saying that the police board would not be involved in decisions about a possible search of the landfill.

“It was decided the Winnipeg Police Board is not the arbiter in terms of the next decision or decision-making process,” he was quoted as saying after the police board meeting on Monday.

“We know the Indigenous community is not satisfied with [the police decision not to search], so it’s up to them to reach out to the levels of government … so that it can be determined what those next steps are.”

Sandra DeLaronde — a longtime advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous people and a signatory on the letter as the project lead for the MMIWG2S+ Implementation Committee — said Chambers’s comments did nothing to improve Indigenous people’s trust in law enforcement.

A woman wearing a maroon jacket and long gold earrings stands against a snowy backdrop. She has dark brown hair tied in a ponytail.
Sandra DeLaronde, a longtime advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous people, says the Indigenous community’s trust in police has degraded since they said they would not search the Prairie Green landfill. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

The comments made her and others feel like they don’t have police support, she said.

“It was particularly disheartening yesterday to hear the chair of the police board telling us, as Indigenous people, again, we are on our own,” she told CBC News.

“There is zero trust in the Winnipeg Police Service in the Indigenous community.”

CBC News requested an interview with Chambers. He instead sent a statement by text message, saying that all levels of government have engaged with First Nations leaders and Indigenous groups on this issue.

“As a result of the levels of government having these conversations, the [police] board has no further comments on next steps other than to continue to ask for the public’s assistance in providing information on the jacket belonging to the unidentified woman known as ‘Buffalo Woman,'” he said.

Police shared a photo of a jacket earlier this month, and said tips about it may help them identify Buffalo Woman.

A series of four photographs shows a jacket. Two photos on the top show the front and back of a black jacket, with a hood lined with grey fur. Two photos on the bottom show the jacket reversed, with black-and-white horizontal stripes.
Police are asking the public to help identify the fourth homicide victim, who has been named Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe, or Buffalo Woman, by community members. Police believe she wore a Baby Phat reversible jacket with a fur hood like this one. (Submitted by Winnipeg Police Service)

The signatories are calling on the federal government to invite a United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples to oversee a search, provide resources needed to conduct a feasibility study, provide resources and supports to the impacted families and cover the costs of the search.

They also want the federal government to agree to be prepared to call in the RCMP if the Winnipeg Police Service refuses to conduct a search, according to the letter.

CBC News has requested comment from Indigenous Services Canada, but didn’t immediately receive a response.

Support is available for anyone affected by details of this case. If you require support, you can contact Ka Ni Kanichihk’s Medicine Bear Counselling, Support and Elder Services at 204-594-6500, ext. 102 or 104, (within Winnipeg) or 1-888-953-5264 (outside Winnipeg).

Support is also available via Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Liaison unit at 1-800-442-0488 or 204-677-1648.

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