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People stand on a highway waving flags.
Vern DeLaronde, the founder of the First Nations Indigenous Warriors, walks on the main road into the Brady Road landfill, just outside of Winnipeg, July 10, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/David Lipnowski

Manitoba’s reasons for refusing to search for Indigenous women’s remains in landfill are a smokescreen

A Manitoba court recently granted police authority to clear a blockade set up by demonstrators near the Brady Road landfill just outside Winnipeg. Indigenous activists and supporters gathered to protest the province’s decision not to fund a search for the bodies of Indigenous women believed to be at Prairie Green landfill north of Winnipeg.

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) recently passed a resolution, reached by consensus, to denounce the Manitoba government’s decision to not fund the landfill search in the hopes of recovering the remains of Indigenous women believed to be the victims of a serial killer.

The AFN resolution affirmed the position of First Nations leadership across Canada that all three orders of government — municipal, provincial and federal — have a responsibility to support the landfill search in Manitoba.

The remains of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran, who are members of the Long Plain First Nation, as well as those of Buffalo Woman or Mashkode Bizhiki'ikwe, an unidentified Indigenous woman in her 20s, are believed to be in the Prairie Green landfill.

Only the remains of one of the victims, Rebecca Contois, were recovered from the city-owned Brady Road landfill.

These women are believed by Winnipeg police to have been killed and their bodies dumped in the garbage by a suspected serial killer between March and May 2022. Jeremy Skibicki is facing four first-degree murder charges.

Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson has said the province’s main justification for rejecting the search for the remains of the missing Indigenous women is because of technical concerns, including the ability to guarantee worker safety.

Does this decision truly centre on technical feasibility? Or is it emblematic of the larger political problem of a lack of institutional will to tackle the ongoing violence towards Indigenous women, girls, queer and two-spirit people in Canada?

This lack of institutional will was identified in the 2019 MMIWG2S+ national inquiry report as a key systemic factor in the ongoing violence. Indigenous women in Canada are 12 times more likely to be murdered or go missing than other women, according to the report.

In opposing the search, the Manitoba premier does not acknowledge the larger issue of the ongoing violence towards Indigenous women.

Technical issue?

Instead, the reasons provided by the Manitoba government to not search the landfill site centre on both technical concerns as well as financial considerations.

The provincial government cited safety concerns for searchers, as well as the estimated length and high cost, and the likelihood that it may not be successful, outlined in a feasibility study of the search.

But according to some media reports, the study did ultimately find that a search was feasible, although it of course could not guarantee the women’s remains would be found.

Indigenous leaders, including the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) and the AFN, are not buying the province’s rejection of the search as a technical problem or safety concern.

AMC Grand Chief Cathy Merrick has dismissed claims of safety concerns as an issue because they have been analyzed in the feasibility report, including the identification of measures that could be taken to mitigate risk to searchers.

Supporters say other landfills in Canada have been searched with a combination of police, firefighters and volunteers. It is true that remains are often not found, yet the searches were still conducted.

a woman standing on a road wearing a blue jacket and sunglasses poses for a photo with her palms covered in red paint.
Diane Bousquet, an activist for Indigenous rights, puts red hand prints on the main road into the Brady Road landfill, just outside of Winnipeg, July 10, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/David Lipnowski

High price tag?

Supporters have countered the potentially high price tag of the search (which could cost $184 million) by pointing out that in at least one other search — the 2021 search of a landfill near London, Ont. for the remains of Nathaniel Brettell — the total cost of the search was neither publicly contemplated nor calculated in advance by policymakers and neither was it communicated by any media.

The Manitoba NDP have voiced support for the search, noting that measures could be taken to bring down costs in addition to mitigating safety concerns, again dispensing with the “technical” concerns.

The financial scrutiny of this issue by policymakers and the media suggests that technical considerations are a smokescreen to justify a lack of action by government when Indigenous victims are involved.

Lack of political will

The AFN resolution ties the issue to the broader context of the need for governments, including law enforcement, to actively work to end violence against Indigenous women and girls by adequately searching for and recovering the remains of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

It would seem that they believe a lack of institutional will is a factor.

Federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller called the provincial government’s decision “heartless.” He said this decision now mars the capacity of the federal government to aid in a search. In response, the premier of Manitoba accused the federal government of politicizing the issue.

The premier’s accusation that it is unnecessary politics to connect this search with the deeply rooted social and economic issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is not a new stance by government officials.

It was not so long ago that federal Conservative Leader Stephen Harper also refused to consider the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people as a broader issue that warranted political action. Instead, his government narrowed it to a criminal matter to be dealt with by law enforcement.

A sign with red hand prints and the words
Activists blocking the main road into the Brady Road landfill, just outside of Winnipeg on July 10, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/David Lipnowski

The 231 Calls to Justice of the MMIWG2S+ report characterize this violence as a systemic issue that requires necessary action be taken by governments. Such narrow framing and choosing not to deal with the issue through better policy decisions points to an ongoing lack of political, institutional will.

From 2016 to 2019, the province of Manitoba participated in the inquiry and affirmed its commitment to the calls to justice. It has also taken some steps to realize these commitments.

If Premier Stefanson wants to continue to fulfil the calls for justice started by her predecessor, that would include taking all necessary measures to prevent and investigate cases of violence against Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people.

It would seem that where there is a political will, there is a way.

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