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Former judge calls on Ottawa to sidestep Manitoba and launch search of landfill for women’s remains

A former judge and chief commissioner of a national inquiry into violence against Indigenous women says the federal government must do more to convince Manitoba to order a search of a landfill for the remains of two Indigenous women.

The Manitoba government has rejected calls to search the landfill, citing safety hazards

Supporters gather at a rally for provincial funding to search two landfills for the bodies of Mercedes Myron and Morgan Harris and other missing people at the Manitoba Legislature in Winnipeg on June 14, 2023.

A former judge and chief commissioner of a national inquiry into violence against Indigenous women says the federal government must do more to convince Manitoba to order a search of a landfill for the remains of two Indigenous women.

Marion Buller, a retired judge who led the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls, said Ottawa should take a larger role in the controversy over the province's refusal to date to order a search for the remains of Morgan Harris, 39, and Marcedes Myran, 26, in the Prairie Green landfill north of Winnipeg.

Buller said Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller has options to secure a search of the landfill.

"There are brilliant minds all across Canada who can come up with some creative solutions for the federal government. Call on those brilliant minds, Minister Miller," Buller told CBC News in her first interview on the matter.

The Manitoba government has rejected calls to conduct a search of the landfill, citing safety hazards associated with sifting through toxic materials.

Buller said the federal government could sidestep the provincial government and try to reach an agreement with the landfill owner to conduct a search.

"There's so much more that can be done and should be done by all levels of government, rather than sitting back and playing some sort of blame game," Buller said.

'Let's just put the politics aside'

Winnipeg Police have charged Jeremy Skibicki, 35, with first-degree murder charges in connection with the deaths of four Indigenous women, including Harris and Myran.

Police believe the remains of Harris and Myran are located below the surface of the privately run landfill.

The other two women are Rebecca Contois and a person whose identity is not known. She has been named Mashkode Bizhiki'ikwe, or Buffalo Woman.

The partial remains of Contois were found at the City of Winnipeg's Brady Road landfill in June 2022. The location of Mashkode Bizhiki'ikwe is not known.

A spokesperson for Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson's office said the government is standing by its decision not to conduct a search. One estimate suggested such a search would cost roughly $184 million.

The provincial government has instead offered to work with all levels of government to build a memorial in honour of the victims.

"Our hearts go out to the families who are dealing with unimaginable grief, but leadership requires difficult decisions," said Stefanson's spokesperson.

"There is no guarantee of finding remains … Our government is committed to continued investments to help our most vulnerable populations to stop these tragedies from happening."

Buller said the Manitoba government's decision suggests the lives of Indigenous women rank low on its priority list.

"They're couching the problem of risk to searchers, safety risks, other risks to the environment as the reason, when really it comes down to money and what value our governments are willing to put on the lives of these women," she said.

"Let's just put politics aside and get the work done."

Buller said the families should not wait for the federal or provincial governments to take action. She said they could take the lead now by seeking private sources of funding and organizing their own search.

"Somebody has to take the lead on this and I think it has to be the families," Buller said.

Miller said that whlle Ottawa wants to help the families get answers, it can't conduct a search without Manitoba's support because the landfill falls under provincial jurisdiction.

"My question to Canadians is, what message are we sending to those women, to Indigenous Peoples generally, when we say that a province can walk away and wash its hands of it?" Miller told CBC News on July 13.

Qajaq Robinson, a former commissioner with the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls, said the debate over ordering a search just reinforces one of the national inquiry's key conclusions — that governments don't take the murders and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls seriously.

"I find it incredibly disheartening and disappointing and frankly upsetting," Robinson told CBC News.

"There should be a search, period, and it should have started long ago and should start immediately and issues over funding should be the last thing that guides the decisions about this."

Robinson and the other former commissioners said they fear critical evidence might be lost while governments drag their heels. They said they want governments to order the search and worry about who pays for it later — just as they are supposed do under a policy for First Nations children known as Jordan's Principle.

Robinson said the case highlights the need for an Indigenous human rights ombudsperson and Indigenous human rights tribunal to independently investigate complaints about violations of Indigenous people's human rights. Both measures were recommended in the national inquiry's 2019 final report.

Robinson said she wants to see the United Nations and the International Criminal Court push for a landfill search.

"If Canada is not going to live up to its obligations, I really do hope that the international community holds Canada accountable," she said.

Sen. Michèle Audette, who also served as a commissioner for the national inquiry, said that before any outside bodies get involved, Manitoba and Ottawa need to set aside their differences.

Audette said members of the Senate standing committee on Indigenous Peoples, on which she serves, have been discussing ways to get involved in calls for a landfill search but haven't decided on a plan yet.

In its final report, the inquiry called on all governments to eliminate the jurisdictional gaps that deny services to Indigenous women.

Audette pointed out that the B.C. government spent more than $100 million to put serial killer Robert Pickton behind bars. Of that sum, about $70 million was spent on the police investigation itself, which involved a meticulous search of Pickton's farm to find the DNA of dozens of suspected victims.

"I know it's expensive," Audette said. "But when you lose a loved one, there's no amount for that."


Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.

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