Search for landfill for women’s remains could begin in April, gathering of Manitoba chiefs says
WARNING: This story contains disturbing details.
A search for remains at a landfill north of Winnipeg could begin as early as April, the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said Friday.
Cathy Merrick said once the organization receives the $500,000 the federal government announced this week, it will likely take four to six weeks to complete the final report on whether it is possible to recover remains from the Prairie Green landfill.
That matches the First Nations advocacy group’s earlier estimate that the study would be complete by March 31 — and means the search could begin shortly thereafter, she said.
“I think it would be safe to say that probably in April the work can really be done and ready to go,” Merrick said at a news conference.
Ottawa this week put a dollar amount on a December pledge to cover the cost of the feasibility study after calls to search the private landfill for the remains of two women believed to be victims of a suspected serial killer.
Merrick said both city and provincial governments have pledged additional funding for a search if needed, although no amount has been specified.
A spokesman for the mayor’s office said in an email that while Scott Gillingham was pleased with Ottawa’s funding announcement, “there is no specific request at this time” for financial assistance from the city.
Prime Minister Heather Stefanson offered to contribute financially to the study in December.
On Friday, a spokesman for the prime minister said support would be assessed once the feasibility study was completed and reviewed.
calls to search
Public pressure for the search began after police announced in December that a man previously charged with first-degree murder in the death of a woman had also been charged with the murders of three others.
Police said the bodies of two of those women, Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran, are believed to have been taken to the Prairie Green compound.
At the time, they said it was not possible to search for the remains of the First Nations women because the area was between the time they believe the bodies were moved there in May and the time they did so in June found a lot of debris had been dumped.
A landfill search committee was later formed, made up of First Nations leaders, family members, forensic experts, police and government, to lead the process of a possible search.
Kirstin Witwicki, Morgan Harris’ cousin, said she didn’t think the trial could have started any earlier.
“All we can do is move forward and try to do things to the best of our ability,” she said at the press conference alongside Harris’ daughter Elle.
“That will be my focus.”
Last month, the Manitoba Chiefs congregation said they had learned no garbage had been dumped in the target area of the landfill since June.
The partial remains of Rebecca Contois, the first woman whose death Jeremy Skibicki was charged with, were found at the Brady Road landfill in Winnipeg in June, after some of the First Nations woman’s remains were found near a North Kildonan apartment building a month earlier had been discovered.
Police were unable to identify or locate the body of the fourth woman, dubbed Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe, or buffalo woman, by indigenous leaders. Police said they believe she is Indigenous and in her mid-20s.
Merrick said she hopes a search in Prairie Green will also help find Buffalo Woman’s remains. If no remains are found at the site, the group is ready to make a proposal to also search the Brady Road landfill, she said.
Skibicki’s attorney, Leonard Tailleur, said his client intends to plead not guilty to all four counts of first-degree murder. Tailleur said the trial is set to begin in April 2024.
Merrick said forensic experts involved with the landfill search committee have consulted on similar cases, including Robert Pickton’s.
Pickton was convicted of six counts of second-degree murder in 2007 after the remains or DNA of 33 women were found at his pig farm in Port Coquitlam, BC, about 16 miles east of Vancouver. Many of these victims were indigenous women.
Merrick said the search’s success makes her optimistic about the chances of the Prairie Green search continuing to be found.
“There was so much work that got done over a long period of time, but they managed to find our women’s loved ones out there in BC,” she said.
Kristin Flattery, women’s coordinator for the Manitoba Chiefs Congregation, said the group intends to search the debris on site rather than hauling 72,000 cubic yards of waste elsewhere.
Flattery said the group is also reaching out to vendors who could help introduce a conveyor belt, which it has identified as the most efficient search method. It’s also exploring the inclusion of a recycling facility, which has offered to help remove scrap metal, she said.
“We’re also currently looking at better technology on the best way … and the quickest way we can get these family members home,” said Flattery, who also sits on the feasibility committee.
She said she didn’t yet know how many people would be needed for a search.
Assistance is available for anyone concerned with the details of these cases. If you need assistance you can call 204-594-6500 ext. 102 or 104 (within Winnipeg) or 1-888-953-5264 (outside of Winnipeg).
Assistance is also available through the Liaison Office for Missing and Murdered Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Indigenous Women and Girls at 1-800-442-0488 or 204-677-1648.
Mental health counseling and crisis support are also available to Indigenous peoples across Canada 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or via online chat.