Ottawa puts more money toward study of Winnipeg landfill search for women’s remains

The families of two slain First Nations women whose remains are believed to be in a Winnipeg-area landfill say they have renewed hope after Manitoba’s provincial election and the federal government’s commitment of $740,000 toward further assessing the scope of a search.

“We’ve been beat down so many times and never wanted to lose that hope,” said Melissa Robinson, whose cousin, 39-year-old Morgan Harris, is one of the women.

“I just feel like everything has been renewed and that fire has been relit.”

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree said in Ottawa on Wednesday that more research is needed to figure out how a search could be done to find the remains of Harris and Marcedes Myran, believed to be at the Prairie Green Landfill north of Winnipeg.

Jeremy Skibicki has been charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of Harris, Myran and two others _ Rebecca Contois, whose partial remains were found in a different landfill last year, and an unidentified woman Indigenous leaders are calling Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe, or Buffalo Woman.

An initial feasibility, also funded by the federal government, found a search would be possible but that toxic materials could pose a risk to workers. Anandasangaree said that meant more issues needed addressing.

The new funds would go to the Long Plain First Nation, about 100 kilometres west of Winnipeg, where Harris and Myran were from. It allows the First nation to collaborate with experts, the owners of the landfill and different levels of government to examine how any search could be done.

Chief Kyra Wilson of Long Plain First Nation said the community had already been working on a plan.

Wilson said it will use the funds to identify preliminary steps that need to be accomplished to do the search. That includes identifying personnel training, construction of facilities, equipment procurement and waste management of hazardous, toxic, and biohazardous waste.

“It’s been a long journey — the past 10 months — that we’ve been advocating to move forward with this search,” Wilson said.

“We are finally here where the federal government is now making those next steps to ensure that we search the landfill.”

Wilson said it has been difficult seeing the tragedy become a divisive political issue in the provincial election.

The New Democrats and Leader Wab Kinew defeated the Progressive Conservatives in Tuesday’s vote to form a majority government. Kinew had promised during the campaign that his NDP government would search the landfill if his party came into power.

Heather Stefanson, who stepped down as leader of the Tories after the results, highlighted her refusal to search the landfill in the middle of the campaign. The Tories took out ads, including large billboards, promising they would “stand firm” in opposing a search due to safety concerns.

Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Cindy Woodhouse said the NDP win shows “dark politics don’t belong in Manitoba anymore.”

She said the leaders from the First Nation have been at the table with the federal government. Now the province is expected to join.

“It’s a good start. Families are waiting,” Woodhouse said.

Anandasangaree said the federal government aims to work with the province on next steps. He was expected to speak with Kinew on Wednesday.

He said Long Plain First Nation had been asking for this “next step in the process,” and he wants the study done within 90 days.

“We’re confident that the community impacted will be able to work with our officials to ensure speedy work is undertaken,” Anandasangaree said.

Anandasangaree said the money will help governments get all the information they need before deciding about the search, but he wouldn’t commit to putting up the $184 million that the search is estimated to cost.

He said Ottawa is “in it for the long haul.”

“Ottawa has always said we’d be there as a partner. It’s an important step toward reconciliation,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday.

Robinson said she spoke with Anandasangaree about the study on Tuesday, before the election results came in.

It felt like a victorious night for the family, who have been calling for a search since last year.

“It’s been 10 months and two days of us fighting every level of government,” she said.

She said family have had difficult conversations with all levels of government about what they expect from a possible search.

Robinson said they hope it will begin early in 2024 and last one year.

“What you guys find in that one year we will be content with,” she said.

“We just want something. We want something of (Harris) so we can lay her to rest properly.”

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