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Manitoba’s refusal to search landfill for remains is racist, says church leader

The leaders of four major church denominations are standing together to urge Manitoba’s political leaders to search Prairie Green landfill for the remains of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran, with one calling the province’s stance racist.

“I think sometimes we have a preference for people who are white in this country and we tend to ignore people who are Indigenous,” said Susan Johnson, national bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.

“I can’t imagine that if there were white people in the landfill that we wouldn’t be searching for them. So I think in many ways, this is racist and it certainly does not work in terms of our commitment to reconciliation.”

Johnson is joining leaders from the United, Presbyterian and Anglican churches of Canada on Sept. 5 at Camp Morgan at the Brady Road landfill in Winnipeg.

“Mostly we’ll be listening. I think we want, first of all, to hear the concerns of the people,” Johnson said. “And then we will consider how best we can advocate for them and with them after we’ve started at the grassroots.”

The camp, named in honour of Morgan Harris, one of two women whose remains are believed to be in the Prairie Green landfill, north of Winnipeg, has been set up near the city’s Brady Road landfill since December.

A second camp, named Camp Marcedes in honour of the other woman, was set up in mid-July beside the Canadian Museum for Human Rights at The Forks.

Tents are set up on grass and next to trees. A banner, strung between two trees, says Search Landfills.
Camp Marcedes is set up next to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights at The Forks. (Radio-Canada)

“We’re coming out in support of the people who are gathered at Camp Morgan and at Camp Marcedes to be with those people and their loss and sorrow and frustration and to support them,” Johnson said about the event next Tuesday.

She will be joined by Carmen Lansdowne, moderator of the United Church of Canada, Mary Fontaine, moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, and Chris Harper, national Indigenous Anglican bishop.

“We have a unique historic moment where the leaders [of those four churches] are all women. That’s never happened before, so this is an issue that moves us very deeply and we wanted to take action together,” said Johnson, who is  based in Winnipeg. The other leaders will be coming from different parts of the country.

The group is also inviting all other faith leaders to join the delegation.

Calls for a search have been growing since Premier Heather Stefanson said she would not fund something that could take up to three years and cost up to $184 million, citing dangers to searchers highlighted in a feasibility report

The study was commissioned after police said they would not search for the remains of Harris, 39, and Myran, 26.

It concluded that a search is feasible, but there would be no guarantee of finding the remains of the women, who police believe are victims of an alleged serial killer. The same man is accused of killing two other women — Rebecca Contois and a woman whose identity is not known but has been named Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe, or Buffalo Woman.

The partial remains of Contois were found at the Brady Road landfill in June 2022. The location of Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe is not known.

“I feel very strongly that this is beyond just a cost analysis, and it’s about holding faith and promised action for reconciliation, and that perhaps we need to rethink what our priorities are,” Johnson said.

Earlier this month, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights announced its support for the search, and last week, Amnesty International Canada added its voice to the call. It is planning a sit-in on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Sept. 18 as part of the International Day of Action to Search the Landfills.

The United Church of Canada last month released a statement condemning Manitoba’s refusal to conduct the search, saying it “demonstrates a lack of humanity.” 

Johnson said she and the other women leaders from the churches had been doing advocacy work around Israeli-Palestinian relations and started talking about the landfill issue.

“Organizing dates is a little more complicated but getting a commitment from each other was very, very fast,” she said.

Johnson hopes adding the church voices to the call for a landfill search will prompt the province to reconsider its stance.

“I also am very aware that we’re in the middle of a provincial election and that depending on who government is, it may or may not make a difference in terms of the response that we get,” she said.

“But I think it’s the responsibility of all layers of government … to put the money where their mouth is in terms of their commitment to ending the scourge, the almost-epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit persons.

“We’re taking reconciliation seriously, so I hope they’ll be able to listen. I hope they’ll be able to change their minds.”

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