Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, experts say landfill search could take less than a year

  • Canadian Press

WINNIPEG — The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs has submitted a new report to governments that it said addresses safety concerns around searching a Winnipeg−area landfill for the remains of two slain First Nations women, but the organization did not release the full study to the public.

"We expect that the findings in this report will expediate the funding required to begin the search and recovery operation for Morgan Harris, Marcedes Myran and Buffalo Woman," Grand Chief Cathy Merrick told a news conference Thursday.

"Over a year we have done everything asked of us ... we cannot offer to produce any more reports."

She said the report was sent to the federal and provincial governments, as well as to Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham’s office, on Wednesday afternoon.

Merrick told reporters the assembly wanted to give officials ample time to go through the report before releasing its contents, but would not say if or when it would be released in the future.

Police have said they believe the remains of Harris and Myran were taken to the Prairie Green Landfill, but declined to search due to the length of time the women were believed to be in the landfill and safety concerns over exposure to toxic chemicals.

The federal government funded an initial feasibility study that looked at the various scenarios and challenges that come with searching a landfill.

The study determined a search could be completed safely, despite some risks, and that it could take up to three years and cost $84 million to $184 million.

Ottawa provided $740,000 to further research the logistics of conducting the search safely.

ISN Maskwa, an Indigenous−owned company that provides emergency response training and services, was brought on to address some of the concerns the federal government had when it comes to risk mitigation and personal protective equipment requirements.

Officials with ISN Maskwa and Rocky Mountain Forensic Consulting said the study contains seven sub−reports that discuss, in part, accessing equipment, building a facility to process the findings from the landfill and staffing requirements.

Sean Sparling, director of investigations with ISN Maskwa, said the search would likely take less time than what was originally outlined.

"It’ll take approximately six months to staff the search, build the facility and get started," he said. "The fact is that (the search) can be completed quite quickly. There’s good data and information as to potentially where these leads are located."

Sparling also said the initial costs outlined are likely too high, but neither he nor Merrick would confirm the new estimates.

He added the biggest delay would likely be around permitting, which the provincial government handles.

Melissa Robinson, Harris’s cousin, called on Premier Wab Kinew to "cut some of that red tape."

"Our premier has that authority. He has that power to be able to do that. He needs to move a little quicker for us," she said.

Families Minister Nahanni Fontaine said in a statement the province remains committed to searching the landfill.

"We have received the (Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs) proposal and will be reviewing it. The next step will be to work with the families on a strong path forward that delivers on our commitment."

Robinson is also calling on the city to provide land space to use for the search facility. She said the family would like to see it done at the city−run Brady Road landfill because it is where a camp honouring her cousin has been set up since police announced charges in Harris’s death in 2022.

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.

The mayor’s office said a request is in to review any available land, but that further discussions are "pending" until a search plan has been agreed upon between other levels of government and the assembly.

Robinson said she has never lost hope her cousin will be found, and remains confident the new report will provide the means to do that.

"I’ve always believed that we’re going to find Morgan. Morgan is going to come home, we are going to lay her to rest."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 25, 2024.

Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press

Photo: Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs

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