Claims that safe landfill search isn’t possible ‘aren’t necessarily based in fact’: committee chair

Concerns the Manitoba government highlighted as its reasons for not helping pay to search a Winnipeg-area landfill for two women’s remains were already addressed by the final report of the committee that studied whether a search would be feasible, the group’s chairs say.

That report outlines how a search could be done safely and what method would bring the highest chance of success, co-chairs Kris Dueck and Emily Holland said at a Monday afternoon news conference held by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC).

“It’s pretty clear to most who have read the study that risks can be mitigated and the search can be conducted safely,” said Dueck, who works with Rocky Mountain Forensic Consulting and spoke via video conference alongside several other experts who echoed his position.

“Any argument, I guess, that would oppose those findings, in our opinion, aren’t necessarily based in fact.”

Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson said earlier this month her government’s decision not to help pay to search the Prairie Green landfill north of Winnipeg for the remains of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran was based on safety concerns for those who would be sifting through the materials.

The province said in a statement a day earlier it could not “knowingly risk Manitoba workers’ health and safety for a search without a guarantee” of finding remains.

Co-chair Holland, a forensic anthropologist at Brandon University, said the search strategy the committee recommended — using a conveyor belt to sift through landfill materials — was identified as having the best chance of finding remains, based on its success in similar searches.

An aerial photo shows waste at a landfill surrounded by farm fields.
An aerial photo taken with a drone on July 13 shows the Prairie Green landfill, in the rural municipality of Rosser north of Winnipeg. Winnipeg police have said they believe the remains of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran were transported there after the two women were killed in May 2022. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

That kind of system “gives you the opportunity to look at everything that’s coming out of that area, so that you can say with confidence that you looked at everything,” she said.

Holland added no one from the province has reached out to her with questions about the report’s recommendations.

The feasibility study also responded to health and safety issues, 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.

Premier faces criticism

Premier Stefanson continues to face criticism over the report from victims’ family members and First Nations leadership, who say the premier hasn’t actually read the 55-page document.

“It’s very easy to say that a search cannot be done if you haven’t read the report. And that is exactly what happened with Premier Stefanson,” Kyra Wilson — chief of Long Plain First Nation, where Harris and Myran were members — said at the news conference.

WATCH | Chief says premier hasn’t read feasibility report:

Chief criticizes Manitoba premier’s response to landfill search

2 hours ago

Duration 1:15

Long Plain First Nation Chief Kyra Wilson criticizes Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson’s decision not to help pay to search a Winnipeg-area landfill for remains, saying the premier made that decision without reading the report herself. A spokesperson for Stefanson said the premier is “familiar with the entirety of the report” through “extensive briefings and her own review.”

A spokesperson for the premier said Stefanson is “familiar with the entirety of the report” through “extensive briefings and her own review.”

That report was completed in May, and found a search could take up to three years and cost as much as $184 million — but said not doing it could cause considerable distress to the victims’ family members and Indigenous communities across the country.

AMC Grand Chief Cathy Merrick urged the premier to reconsider her position on the search, calling it “the only thing you can do that will better our relationship,” while Long Plain Chief Wilson called on all levels of government to collaborate on the issue.

And for family members like Melissa Robinson, seeing the province refuse to help look for her cousin Morgan Harris’s remains sends a clear message.

“The premier is now showing us that because of the colour of our skin, she won’t do it,” said Robinson, who has been part of an ongoing encampment at Winnipeg’s Brady Road landfill. “I’m tired, we’re all tired. I don’t know why we’re fighting for our government to do the right thing.”

Calls for search began in December

Winnipeg police have said they believe the remains of Harris and Myran were transported to the Prairie Green landfill north of Winnipeg after the two women were killed in May 2022.

Police said it wasn’t feasible to search by the time they came to that conclusion in June 2022, in part because of how much additional material had been dumped at the site.

The faces of three First Nations women are pictured side by side.
Jeremy Skibicki has been charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of Morgan Harris, 39, Marcedes Myran, 26, Rebecca Contois, 24, and a fourth unidentified woman whom Indigenous leaders have named Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe, or Buffalo Woman. (Submitted by Cambria Harris, Donna Bartlett and Darryl Contois)

The information wasn’t made public until December 2022, when police charged Jeremy Skibicki, 35, with first-degree murder in the deaths of Harris, 39, Myran, 26, Rebecca Contois, 24, and a fourth unidentified woman whom Indigenous leaders have named Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe, or Buffalo Woman.

The news that Harris’s and Myran’s remains were believed to be in a landfill that police had decided not to search spurred calls for a study to look into whether a successful search of the dump was possible.

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.