Daughter of one of four slain Indigenous women, alleged victims of Jeremy Skibicki, wants to ensure “the landfill isn’t their final resting place.”
Toronto Star: WINNIPEG—The red dress trembles in the wind as it clings to a chain-link fence.
The symbols of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls are draped all along the perimeter of the Brady Road landfill south of Winnipeg, an almost ghostly presence bound to the steel caging that blocks off a site haunted by what has been found there already, and what may yet be found.
The dresses are intertwined with red ribbons affixed to the fencing, leading to a small campsite directly outside the entrance of the landfill. A tent with an upside-down Canadian flag, red and orange handprints and the words “No Pride in Genocide” greets visitors.
Across from it is a flag bearing the name of the four Indigenous women for whom this camp was created, and who police allege were victims of a serial killer: Morgan Harris, 39, Marcedes Myran, 26, Rebecca Contois, 24, and an unidentified victim who police believe was an Indigenous woman in her 20s. She is being referred to as Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe, or Buffalo Woman.
This is Camp Morgan, where community members have now been camping out for more than 50 days in protest of police’s initial refusal to search the site for the remains of the unrecovered three women after Contois’s partial remains were found here in June.
The man accused of killing the women will appear in court Thursday. This site stands as part protest, part sad commentary on the ongoing saga of missing and murdered women and what those trying to hold onto the passing attention of headlines feel is the near overwhelming ambivalence of much of Canada.
For some the struggle is deeply personal.
Jeremy Skibicki, a 35-year-old Winnipeg man, was charged with four counts of first-degree murder after police said they connected him to the deaths of all four women in December. On Thursday, Skibicki is slated to appear in court for a pretrial in connection to the charges. His lawyer, Leonard Tailleur, told the Star it hasn’t been determined if the trial will proceed by jury or judge alone and that his client intends to plead not guilty to all the charges.
At Camp Morgan, Cambria Harris, a slight woman with curly hair and emerald eyes watches solemnly as supporters gather logs of wood to fuel a sacred fire, enclosed in a steel fire pit, that has been burning since mid-December.
The daughter of Morgan Harris, one of the slain women, explains that in her traditional teachings, the sacred fire acts as a portal between this world and the spirit realm — it allows those who have passed on to come and go and visit their loved ones before they depart to the other side.
“That doesn’t happen for these women,” Harris says, staring off as vehicles stream into the reopened landfill to drop off their garbage. “They’re lost souls at this point. So we need to keep it burning, to let them know that we’re there for them. As well as bringing their remains home and ensuring that the landfill isn’t their final resting place, or for anyone, for that matter.”
She says she’s not ready to leave until her mother’s remains are found, the two other women who are still unaccounted for, as well as any other women possibly buried at the landfill.
Police have said they believe the remains of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran are located at Prairie Green, a different, privately owned landfill north of the city. But Harris and others are calling for both landfills to be searched; she stresses it’s not just about her mother or the women police allege were victims. (Very little is known about Buffalo Woman.)
The Brady Road landfill, a sprawling facility spanning nearly 790 hectares, sees an average of 150 garbage trucks a day and roughly 200,000 tonnes of garbage a year, according to a 2016 article by the Winnipeg Free Press. “I’ll see like hundreds and hundreds of cars just go through dumping their loads,” she says. “So how many other loads of our women were dumped previously?
“It makes me so mad seeing these cars continuously coming in … it just really paints a picture of how society and how people in power view our Indigenous Peoples,” she adds.
Harris and her supporters blocked the entrance to the landfill for three days in December and established Camp Morgan on Dec. 18. The city reopened the landfill in early January and estimates the temporary closure came with a price tag of about $400,000. Community members say city officials were at one point exploring whether an injunction could be brought against the protesters to shut the site down, but have since seemed to pull back from that effort.
“It’s through these discussions (with family members, the First Nation Indigenous Warriors, as well as other community stakeholders) and through their co-operation that we were able to reach a compromise, one which supports the right to peacefully protest while allowing the Brady Road Resource Management Facility to reopen to members of the public,” the city said in a December statement.
While police initially said it wouldn’t be feasible to search the site due to the passage of time and the sheer volume of material dumped at the site, they have since joined a committee, launched by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, to examine the possibility of recovering the remains. Ottawa said Wednesday it’s providing $500,000 for the feasibility study.
The results of the study are expected in March, but it’s too little, too late for Harris. “It shouldn’t come down to feasibility when it’s about human life and women sitting at the bottom of a fricking landfill … If they did their job in June, we could be searching in October and November before the ground froze over,” she says.
Police said in December it would be too difficult to search the Prairie Green landfill, after discovering in June that remains would have been sent there in May.
The situation unfolding in Winnipeg has received international attention — Harris was recently interviewed by a Swedish radio station about their protest and has also spoken to the Guardian — but she said it’s been a greater challenge to get Canadians to accept police findings.
She says her social media accounts have been flooded with racist remarks since she’s started speaking out, and she added there’s been “Freedom Convoy” types who show up to the camp to harass she and her supporters — screaming statements like “All Lives Matter” and “It’s your own men murdering your woman.”
At Camp Morgan, Harris says she’s observed Freedom Convoy supporters writing the name of their movement on missing persons posters, seemingly because they find some kinship in their mutual opposition to the government. “They’re anti-government in the sense of they want their own government,” Harris says. “We’re about dismantling those systems that are there to harm us. And it’s just really, really disgusting that they’re piggybacking on the lives of murdered Indigenous women and grieving families.”
In one case, a person opposed to their protest threatened to drive through their camp, she says.
While Indigenous women experience higher rates of intimate partner violence when compared to their counterparts, they also see a much higher rate of physical and sexual violence from people such as acquaintances, colleagues or strangers (44 per cent of Indigenous women versus 25 per-cent of non-Indigenous women).
The RCMP said in a 2014 report they estimate there are about 1,181 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls nationwide between 1980 and 2012, but the Native Women’s Association of Canada says the number is likely closer to more than 4,000.
Melissa Normand, a member of the Winnipeg Bear Clan and a relative of Harris, says despite all the media attention the charges have received, they still regularly have to explain to passersby what they’re doing and why they’re protesting. “We’re losing our women left, right and centre and it has to come down to a white man (accused as a serial killer) to really get attention … because if it was an Indigenous man, it wouldn’t be the same situation,” she says.
Kirstin “Dogg” Witwicki, another member of the clan, says it wasn’t the police or the justice system that failed these women, but all of society that left them vulnerable to exploitation. “The greatest failure is the cumulative failure of all of our systems … There’s so many different pathways to this landfill,” she says.
She points to how it’s believed at least two of the victims ended up on the streets after their children were apprehended for allegedly using drugs, which caused a domino effect that led to then losing their homes and income, which perhaps may have led to them trusting dangerous individuals to find food and shelter out of desperation.
She says it’s frustrating to see the lack of support from Winnipeggers as a whole. “We’re struggling to keep one or two people here (to hold down the camp) in a city of how many people? It can be really disheartening.”
One of those people is Tre Delaronde, a member of the First Nations Indigenous Warriors who has been at the camp nearly every day since Dec. 18, often sleeping overnight in his tent. He says he’s not opposed to direct confrontation if officials try to shut the camp down. “I do it because the family needs people to fight for them,” Delaronde says. “They demand justice. And we need more supporters to help with fire keeping while the warriors maintain security. We hope other people will come be supportive at the camp, not just sharing things over Facebook and liking posts.”
Outside the tent, Barrington Nichols is helping the group gather wood to fuel the sacred fire. The former U.K. resident who moved here about 14 years ago says he once had a vision of Canada as a kind of multicultural utopia. But he found it jarring to learn about its history of colonialism and the continuing impacts on Indigenous Peoples today.
“Canada does a great job of selling itself to the outside world … And my shame was that it took me so long to appreciate the struggles,” he says.
He says while white privilege is a real concept that he acknowledges and accepts, he says there is another kind of privilege afforded to Canadian immigrants. “For immigrants landing in this country, the Canadian government is almost falling backwards to ensure a system is in place,” he says. “For me as a Black guy, coming from the U.K. and landing as a permanent resident in this country, it was a reality for me to realize that I had more privileges than the individuals who actually own this land.”
It’s a message Delaronde and others hope Canadians will take to heart. “If you can help us in any way, support us,” he says. “So that we can stand together in unity and solidarity for all Indigenous Peoples across the land.”
Harris is standing outside the Salvation Army Centre of Hope, a shelter where her mother used to stay near Winnipeg’s north end. Back in May, she spent weeks here walking through bars, drug dens and alleys in search of her mom. These streets bring back memories of her childhood and the lessons her mother taught her to survive as an Indigenous woman: Don’t go out past 7 p.m. Try not to go grocery shopping alone. Never take a cab by yourself.
Driving past posters of missing women, she can’t help but think of her mother’s last moments on these streets. “Knowing my mother’s last moments were probably lived in fear breaks my heart,” Harris says. “Even in death, she can’t get the dignity and respect that she deserves.”
But today she’s remembering her mother for her strength, honesty and dedication to her family. “My mother did a really good job of shielding me from the horrors of the world, but she never shielded me from what she was going through. Because she was always true to who she was as a person. So she let it be known — this is how your mommy lives, and this is what’s happening and this is why I can’t be there for you.”
It’s why she’s so committed to standing up for her mother.
And to help her spirit finally rest.“In my culture, Indigenous women, any woman for that matter, are considered sacred. They’re sacred water carriers because we carry that water and that life for nine months. And we need to start treating them as if they are sacred, whether that be in life or in death. And it shouldn’t have to be that in death is the only time we start caring.”