The federal minister of Crown-Indigenous relations is criticizing Manitoba’s government for standing in the way of a search for the remains of two slain Indigenous women believed to be in a landfill, as others say the jurisdictional battle is leaving the victims’ families and the City of Winnipeg in limbo.
“We are willing to play a role, a very important role in this,” Marc Miller said Wednesday at the Assembly of First Nations general meeting in Halifax.
“But the reality of where we’re working is that the government of Canada can’t nationalize the garbage dump or the waste disposal system of the City of Winnipeg.”
Dozens of protesters have blocked the main road of the Brady Road landfill demanding a search of a different landfill north of Winnipeg, called Prairie Green, where it’s believed the remains of two Indigenous women were dumped last year.
The blockade began last week after Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson said the province would not support a search of Prairie Green, pointing to a study that said it could cost $184 million, pose safety risks and not have guaranteed success.
Stefanson stood by the decision Wednesday.
The province would not stop a search if the federal government supports one with sufficient safeguards, the premier’s office has said.
“It’s time for the federal government to show leadership and provide clarity,” the premier’s office said in a statement Wednesday.
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“Everyone is looking to the federal government to make their decision.”
Miller said the decision by Stefanson’s Progressive Conservative government not to search the landfill makes arriving at a decision this summer “logistically impossible.”
“This has been dealt with in a very heartless way, quite frankly,” Miller said.
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, which represents 62 First Nations, called the province’s lack of action disheartening.
Chief Kyra Wilson said in a statement that all levels of government “must step up and support the search efforts to bring closure and justice to these women and their communities.”
Meanwhile, Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham said he spoke with Miller Wednesday afternoon and urged the federal government to be clear about the path forward.
The families are stuck between two senior levels of government that do not agree on the next steps — and so is the City of Winnipeg, Gillingham said in a statement.
The private landfill that would be searched, Prairie Green, is in a rural municipality north of Manitoba’s capital and not under Winnipeg’s jurisdiction. But the Brady Road landfill south of the city, where there has been an almost weeklong blockade, is used and operated by Winnipeg.
A city official said earlier this week the blockade was preventing maintenance work from being done and the city was at risk of violating its environmental licence.
“The families need a clear indication of the path ahead,” Gillingham said.
“The city needs a resolution to the Brady Road protest. And the entire community needs the senior levels of government to reach an agreement on this issue.”
The city filed an application Tuesday to the Court of King’s Bench seeking the removal of protesters from the Brady Road landfill. The court is to hear the request Thursday.
Jeremy Skibicki has been charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of four women.
The remains of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran are believed to be at the private Prairie Green landfill.
He has also been charged in the death of Rebecca Contois, whose remains were found last year at Brady Road, and an unidentified woman Indigenous leaders are calling Buffalo Woman, whose remains have not been found.
The federally funded study into the possibility of a search warned there are risks due to exposure of toxic chemicals and asbestos. It also said forgoing a search could be harmful for the women’s families.
Miller said Stefanson is correct in noting there are health and safety concerns. However, the minister said landfills have been searched before and remediation projects have been carried out on mines.
“We’re standing here today willing to work with our partner in the government of Manitoba, but they’re not there, and that’s unfortunate.”
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