AMC’s Cathy Merrick says province’s concerns about searchers’ safety are addressed in feasibility report
CBC News: The leader of the group pushing to search a Winnipeg-area landfill for the remains of two First Nations women says she doesn’t buy the Manitoba government’s explanation that it won’t provide funding for the initiative because of safety concerns for those who would be sifting through the materials.
“That’s bullshit. Because the feasibility study was conducted by experts. We had an anthropologist on the technical working group,” Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Cathy Merrick said in an interview on Wednesday.
“Those issues are reflected in the study as to what can be done, as to what preventative measures can be taken not to put anybody at risk — so that homework is done, and I’m pretty shocked that those issues would come forward now.”
Merrick spoke shortly after the Manitoba government released a statement on Wednesday evening, saying it “cannot knowingly risk Manitoba workers’ health and safety for a search without a guarantee” of finding the women’s remains.
“We understand the desire to leave no stone unturned,” said a statement attributed to Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson and Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Relations Minister Eileen Clarke. “However, the search process described in the report is complex, and comes with long-term human health and safety concerns that simply cannot be ignored.”
The statement also cited the emotional costs of a search that is delayed or does not locate any remains.
The feasibility report Merrick and the province referred to was completed in May, and looked at the logistics of searching the privately run Prairie Green landfill for two women who are believed to have been among the victims of an alleged serial killer.
Winnipeg police said they believe the remains of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran were transported to the landfill in May 2022.
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The study found a successful search of the site, located north of Winnipeg, is possible.
Conducting that search could take up to three years and cost up to $184 million, the report said, but not doing it could cause considerable distress to the victims’ family members and Indigenous communities across the country.
The feasibility study also outlined concerns about health and safety, recommending on-site hazardous materials teams to monitor air quality, act as safety officers and perform decontamination of personnel who work closely with evacuated materials.
That report, which was later leaked online by a relative of one of the victims, outlined a plan to hire more than 40 staff, including managers, elders and knowledge keepers, a forensic anthropologist and as many as 28 technicians to conduct the search for Harris, 39, and Myran, 26.
Both women’s families have said finding their remains is vital to bringing them closure.
Jeremy Skibicki is charged with first degree-murder in both deaths, as well as those of 24-year-old Rebecca Contois and a fourth unidentified woman, whom community members have named Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe, or Buffalo Woman.
Contois’s partial remains were found last year in Winnipeg’s Brady Road landfill. Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe’s remains have not been found. Skibicki’s trial is scheduled to begin in April 2024.
Decision won’t halt search efforts: grand chief
The province’s announcement about the search came after what Merrick said was a meeting that lasted more than two hours and included Premier Stefanson, two provincial cabinet ministers, Long Plain First Nation Chief Kyra Wilson and relatives of the victims.
Merrick said she was expecting to get an update from the province on the status of a possible search — not a decision that they wouldn’t help make it happen. But that outcome won’t stand in the way of efforts to push forward. “It breaks my heart,” she said. “I really expected more than what was shared with us. But it’s only one step back. We’re going to move two steps forward after this.”
The chief of Long Plain First Nation said she is also frustrated that the province cited safety risks in its decision.
“That was the main reason why we actually had a feasibility study done — to speak to those risks, to figure out how we’re going to mitigate those risks,” Wilson told CBC on Wednesday. “It’s extremely frustrating when the provincial government is stating that they won’t support the landfill search for that very reason.”
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The province said while it’s ruling out funding a search, it won’t stand in the way of the federal government backing one if sufficient safeguards are in place to address the risks. It also wouldn’t block the use of Manitoba workers at the site, a spokesperson said.
The provincial government said it is now awaiting the federal government’s response to the study, which is being reviewed by Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller. A spokesperson for Miller’s office said the minister will have more comments on the study after he is done reviewing it.
In the meantime, Wilson said she’s trying to figure out how to move forward with a search without funding from any level government, if it comes down to that. “If this was your loved one that was in the landfill, wouldn’t you do everything in your power to try and bring that person home?” she said. “You can’t just push us aside and … act like our voices or opinions or our lives don’t matter.”
Cambria Harris, the daughter of Morgan Harris, expressed anger and disappointment after Wednesday’s meeting. “I told [Stefanson] she was retraumatizing my family quite frankly, and I found it disrespectful,” she said in a social media post, accusing the province of “a game of political yo-yo.
The AMC’s Merrick made the same charge, saying she wants to see the provincial and federal governments collaborate on the issue. “It’s really unfortunate for our people and it’s unfortunate for the family,” she said. “They’ve been through so much.”
While the province said it would not support a search of the landfill, it is prepared to support a memorial.
The government said it has also offered supports to the victims’ families to help them with their healing process, and is continuing to “address the many sources of violence against Indigenous women and girls.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Caitlyn Gowriluk, Reporter
Caitlyn Gowriluk has been writing for CBC Manitoba since 2019. Her work has also appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, and in 2021 she was part of an award-winning team recognized by the Radio Television Digital News Association for its breaking news coverage of COVID-19 vaccines. Get in touch with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.