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

August 29, 2023

‘I can’t imagine that if there were white people in the landfill … we wouldn’t be searching for them’: bishop

A woman wearing glasses stands in front of a wall of crosses.
Susan Johnson, national bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, is part of a group of church leaders who have come together to urge Manitoba’s political leaders to search Prairie Green landfill for the remains of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran. (Prabhjot Singh Lotey/CBC)

CBC News: 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 will join 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 next Tuesday’s event.

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

“We have a unique historic moment where the [church] leaders 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.

“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.”

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

‘Sometimes the answer has to be no’: Stefanson

Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Cathy Merrick said it’s a “blessing in disguise” that church leaders have come forward to urge political leaders to search the landfill.  “The more organizations that do come forth to support this is very much appreciated,” Merrick said in a phone interview on Tuesday.

“This was something that we didn’t expect, but we’re very happy that they are coming forth, and awareness leads to understanding,” she said. “That’s all we want, is for people to understand that we need to bring our loved ones home.” 

There’s a long and difficult history between the churches and Indigenous people in terms of the residential school system, Merrick noted, saying she hopes the church leaders continue to advocate for the landfill search and reach out to other churches to join the call.

She said she hasn’t received an invitation as of yet for next week’s event, but if one is extended she’ll be there.

Calls for a search of Prairie Green 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

In an emailed statement Tuesday, Stefanson said as premier, “as much as I would like to say yes to everything, sometimes the answer has to be no.”  While her statement said “we can all agree that this is a tragic situation,” she once again cited “significant human health risks that cannot be ignored.”

That isn’t good enough, Merrick said later Tuesday.

“The weight of this situation demands more than a vague ‘Sometimes the answer has to be no,'” she said in a statement emailed Tuesday evening in response to Stefanson’s comment. She also said in earlier meetings with Stefanson, “it was apparent that she hadn’t read the landfill feasibility study before unilaterally opting against a landfill search.” Merrick acknowledged that “human health risks are important,” but said Stefanson’s response “fails to acknowledge the systemic racism and historical injustices that have brought us to this point.” 

“It is easy to offer sympathies, but actions are what truly matter,” Merrick said.

The feasibility study, commissioned after police said they would not search for the remains of Harris, 39, and Myran, 26, concluded that a search is possible but said 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 who 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.

‘It’s a human rights issue’

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 what has been declared 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.

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

A woman with long hair and sunglasses on top of her head wears a jean jacket and stands near an outdoor camp
Melissa Robinson, Morgan Harris’s cousin, was contacted a couple of weeks ago by the church groups.(Radio-Canada)

Melissa Robinson, Harris’s cousin and one of the people organizing the camps and lobbying for a landfill search, said the church groups contacted her a couple of weeks ago to say they wanted to stand in solidarity.

“With our faith communities coming together … all on board for the same subject, it’s remarkable,” she said.

Robinson hopes other national groups follow that lead. “It’s a human rights issue. We’re talking about human remains lying in a landfill and our provincial government stopping us from moving forward to retrieve them,” she said. “They deserve to be brought home and laid to rest properly.”

The church organizations asked how they could help, and Robinson suggested they make a public announcement. With that now done, she’s optimistic they will follow through on one other thing.

“I’m hoping when they come, they bring their chequebooks. I did let them know,” Robinson said. “We know that our municipal government doesn’t have the funds to help, so we’re hoping that maybe they can.”

It’s costly to keep the effort going — to fund a sign-building campaign, to build structures at the camps like a wigwam, a kitchen and storage facilities, and to pay for food. “And it’s hard to keep up with the demand of wood supply to keep our sacred fires burning. A cord of wood is costing us $350 and we now have two camps to worry about,” Robinson said.

“We’re hoping for more support soon, with winter coming, because we’re definitely going to need it.”

Manitoba’s refusal to search landfill for remains is racist, church leader says: Duration 2:30

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.

Click on the following link to view the video:


Darren Bernhardt, Reporter

Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.

With files from Meaghan Ketcheson, Alana Cole and Anne-Charlotte Carignan