WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
The federal government says it will provide $500,000 to determine whether it’s possible to recover human remains from a landfill near Winnipeg, after months of calls to search there for the bodies of two victims of an alleged serial killer.
The money from Crown–Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada will go to the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, which has been overseeing efforts around a feasibility study on a search at the Prairie Green landfill.
The funding will support the organization in working with families, experts and community organizations, along with other entities including various levels of Indigenous and non-Indigenous governments, the Winnipeg Police Service and RCMP, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller’s office said in a Wednesday news release.
Ottawa is also working with Indigenous leaders and organizations, provincial and municipal governments and police to offer support and healing services to families and communities, the release said.
That money will provide much-needed resources to conduct a proper feasibility study of the landfill site, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Cathy Merrick said in the news release.
Calls for search
Calls to search the Winnipeg-area landfill began after police announced in December that a man previously charged with first-degree murder in one woman’s death had since been charged in the killings of three others.
Police said the remains of two of those women, Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran, were believed to have been taken to the Prairie Green site in May.
At the time, police said they had determined it wouldn’t be feasible for them to search there by the time they determined the bodies were taken there in June.
That decision sparked calls from community members, including family members of the victims, for the landfill to be searched for the women’s bodies.
Weeks later, the federal government said it would cover the cost of a study on whether remains could be recovered through a search of the site.
Last month, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said it had learned no garbage had been dumped in the targeted section of the landfill since June.
The partial remains of Rebecca Contois, the first victim whose death Jeremy Skibicki was charged in, were discovered at Winnipeg’s Brady Road landfill in June, after some of her remains were discovered near a North Kildonan apartment building a month earlier.
Police have not yet been able to identify or determine the location of the remains of the fourth victim, whom community leaders have named Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe, or Buffalo Woman.
‘Only the beginning’
Among the loudest voices in the call for a search of the landfill has been Cambria Harris, whose mother Morgan Harris is one of the women whose remains are believed to have been taken there.
For Harris, Wednesday’s update provided a bit of relief, “but it’s really only the beginning.”
She said she’s continuing to push for a second feasibility study on also searching the city’s Brady Road landfill, where she said an encampment called Camp Morgan will remain for the foreseeable future.
“While they believe that my mother is in the Prairie Green [landfill], there is still a chance of them not finding her there,” she said on Wednesday.
“And if they are not able to find her there, then I want them to at least search the Brady [landfill] as well — for her and Buffalo Woman and any and all women that are believed to be there or could be there.”
Leah Gazan, an NDP MP in Winnipeg Centre, said in an emailed statement the announcement was an important first step that wouldn’t have happened without the efforts of families and advocates.
Gazan, the NDP’s critic for women and gender equality, also called for more funding from Ottawa to implement all 231 calls for justice from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
Miller said the funding announced Wednesday is “not the end of the efforts, by any stretch of the imagination.”
“It will give the team that’s there the financial resources necessary to be doing that work over the course of the winter and most likely the spring. This is something that will take some time,” Miller told media in Ottawa.
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs previously said it expects to complete the Prairie Green feasibility study by March 31.
Indigenous Service Minister Patty Hajdu said the money is a signal of Ottawa’s commitment to support provincial and Indigenous leaders in “making sure that [no] stone is unturned to help families who are grieving in an unimaginable way.”
“This is a really solemn time for those families, but i think it’s important that we step up and try our absolute best together,” Hajdu said.
Skibicki’s lawyer said his client intends to plead not guilty on all four counts of first-degree murder. His next court date is scheduled for Thursday.
Support is available for anyone affected by details of these cases. If you require support, you can contact Ka Ni Kanichihk’s Medicine Bear Counselling, Support and Elder Services at 204-594-6500, ext. 102 or 104, (within Winnipeg) or 1-888-953-5264 (outside Winnipeg).
Support is also available via Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Liaison unit at 1-800-442-0488 or 204-677-1648.
Mental health counselling and crisis support are also available to Indigenous people across Canada 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat.