Actions and Commitments

Call to Action # 41: Justice (25-42)

Plan to search landfill for women’s remains moves ahead as province approves environmental licence change

June 11, 2024

Environmental licence change was part of 1st stage in search of Prairie Green landfill for remains, Kinew says

A view from above of garbage in a landfill in summer, with a yellow canola field in the background
An aerial view of the Prairie Green landfill, north of Winnipeg, on July 13, 2023. (Jaison Empson/CBC

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

CBC News: The Manitoba government has set out five stages to search a Winnipeg-area landfill by hand for the remains of two victims of an admitted serial killer — the first of which has now been completed, Premier Wab Kinew said Tuesday.

That first stage included getting the licence approvals to search the Prairie Green landfill, which the province’s environmental approvals branch gave on Tuesday.

Altering the Environmental Act licence for Waste Connections of Canada — which operates the landfill — was one of the requirements for a search to move forward listed in a feasibility study conducted about the search of the landfill just outside of Winnipeg.

“At the end of the day, this is a very emotional process,” Kinew said at a Tuesday news conference, after meeting with the families of Morgan Harris, 39, and Marcedes Myran, 26, the two women whose remains are believe to have been taken to the landfill after they were killed by a man who is now on trial for first-degree murder in their deaths.

“We can only imagine what it’s been like for the families to find out this news, what it was like for them to have the search politicized last year, what it’s been like for them to go through the trial period, and then now for us to engage with them and tell them, ‘We are starting the search. We are going to try to bring the remains of your loved ones home,'” Kinew said.

Donna Bartlett, the grandmother of Myran, said she was glad to hear the search would likely start by the end of the summer and continue through the winter.

A woman holds up a missing persons poster for a younger woman.
Donna Bartlett is shown in an October 2022 file photo, holding up a missing person poster for her granddaughter, Marcedes Myran. Later that year, police said Myran was one of four victims of serial killer Jeremy Skibicki. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

“I am really happy and my girl is happy, and we’ll get her home,” Bartlett said on Tuesday, as she and her family headed to the landfill for a ceremony and prayer after a meeting with Kinew.

Jorden Myran, the sister of Marcedes Myran, declined an interview at the legislative building. However, in a Facebook post Tuesday, she said, “I’ve fought so incredibly hard for this, and although it shouldn’t have taken this long I’m still so grateful that we are now doing it.

“I want to thank all of our supporters who showed up to all of our protests and helped us fight for this and get this done.”

The update comes a day after closing arguments in the first-degree murder trial of Jeremy Skibicki, who in a 2022 police interview admitted to killing three First Nations women — Harris, Myran and Rebecca Contois, 24 — and an unidentified woman community leaders have given the name Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe, or Buffalo Woman. Police have said they believe she was an Indigenous woman in her 20s.

Skibicki told police he killed the women in his apartment, then threw their remains in garbage bins in the area.

While Contois’s partial remains were found in those garbage bins and at the Brady Road landfill in Winnipeg, Harris’s and Myran’s remains are believed to be at the Prairie Green landfill, north of Winnipeg.

The faces of three First Nations women are pictured side by side.
Left to right: Morgan Harris, Marcedes Myran and Rebecca Contois. Skibicki has admitted to killing all three women, as well as a fourth who remains unidentified, but has been given the name Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe, or Buffalo Woman. (Submitted by Winnipeg Police Service and Darryl Contois)

The provincial and federal governments each announced $20 million to help fund the landfill search earlier this year.

In a statement emailed to CBC News, Matthieu Perrotin, a spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree said the federal government “hear[s] the families when they say we need to move forward now.”

“We will continue to be a partner in this difficult work as we work together to search the landfill and bring closure and healing to the families and community members,” the statement said.

Next steps in search

Kinew said now that the licence approval to search Prairie Green is completed, and the $40-million budget for the search has been reviewed, the next stage is to complete a “pilot search” and build temporary support buildings at the site.

Following that, a workforce will be hired over the summer months and the search facility will be prepared. A search of the targeted area where it’s believed the women’s remains are will then begin.

If that initial search is unsuccessful, the search will widen, Kinew said.

He said after looking at what was publicly disclosed during the trial process, and working with an engineer and the owners of Prairie Green, it’s likely the remains of Harris are buried deep in the landfill, rather than closer to the surface. 

As part of the “pilot search,” later this month, workers will sift through a different area of the landfill to understand the consistency of the material before starting a manual search of the targeted area.

“The reasons why we’re proceeding with this manual search is that after having our team and our experts look into this, we concluded that this is going to allow us to move forward in a much more robust fashion with a more thorough search with less down time,” Kinew said.

“If we use a conveyor belt system, if the belt breaks, the whole search comes to a stop and we’re trying to avoid that. The families have been forced to wait long enough.”

He said the search will use a grid system that will allow multiple people to search through materials and open bags. Workers hired for the manual search will be required to follow extensive health and safety precautions and undergo training.

“The search is going to move through these other stages over the course of this year and the next and realistically could go into early 2026,” he said. 

Environmental licence altered

In a letter to a manager at Waste Connections of Canada, outlining the licence approval to begin the search, the province said it’s approving the needed change as the company seeks “to begin a humanitarian search activity within the landfill.”

The letter, obtained by CBC News, says the scope of the work will include excavating materials and hauling them to the search site, as well as developing and running a search facility.

The environmental approval comes with a long list of conditions, including that the landfill dispose of all non-hazardous solid waste created or collected during the search in the active part of the dump, unless it gets recycled.

The landfill is also required to make sure the search facility has equipment and supplies to clean up any spills.

At the municipal level, a development permit has been issued by the South Interlake Planning District to begin on-site construction of temporary support buildings, including offices and storage space, at the landfill, Kinew said. 

The province will also build a healing space on the south side of the landfill, which will have a separate controlled entrance from Prairie Green Road. It will have a kitchen, communal space and private space for the victims’ families, elders and other community members to gather.

Kinew said the healing space building is currently under construction, and that the families had an opportunity to tour the area where it’s being built Tuesday afternoon. 

The families of Harris and Myran have been pleading for a search since Winnipeg police announced in late 2022 that Skibicki, who already faced a first-degree murder charge in Contois’s death, had been charged with the other three killings as well.

During a trial that began hearing evidence on May 8, prosecutors argued the killings were motivated by racism and homicidal necrophilia. Skibicki’s defence argued he should be found not criminally responsible due to mental disorder.

The judge has reserved his decision until July 11.

Support is available for anyone affected by these reports and the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous people. Immediate emotional assistance and crisis support are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through a national hotline at 1-844-413-6649.

You can also access, through the government of Canada, health support services such as mental health counselling, community-based support and cultural services, and some travel costs to see elders and traditional healers. Family members seeking information about a missing or murdered loved one can access Family Information Liaison Units.

With files from Karen Pauls