Fed up with stonewalling by the Winnipeg Police Service, Bernadette Smith, a member of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, says she’s been consulting with forensic experts about two Indigenous women police believe are in a landfill outside the city.
Earlier this week, Winnipeg police announced that it has not plans to search the Prairie Green Landfill, located about 20 km northwest of the city, for the remains of Mercedes Myran and Morgan Harris.
The whereabouts of a third victim, APTN News is calling Buffalo Woman, is unknown.
Smith – whose sister Claudette Osborne went missing in Winnipeg in 2008 – is joining the chorus of voices decrying the police force’s lack of initiative.
“We’ve been consulting with some forensic anthropologists that have worked on the Robert Pickton farm that have expansive experience, that work with the medical examiner here in Manitoba and also work with the Winnipeg Police, and they’ve told us that this can be done,” Smith said in an interview with Nation to Nation guest host Lindsay Richardson.
“They’ve assured us that, in fact, these women can be found and that these landfills can be searched – and there are ways that can be done, like bringing in cadaver dogs, sifting through, and moving some of this [debris] to different areas for them to be searched.
Speaking from personal experience, Smith said Indigenous people who go missing, or are murdered, “don’t get the same kind of resources paid to them.”
According to Smith, it took Winnipeg police approximately 10 days to start investigating her sister’s disappearance.
A few years ago, she said she received a “detailed letter” with a map pinpointing a possible location for Osborne’s remains.
But after bringing it to investigators on the case, Smith said she was told there “wasn’t enough evidence to search.”
“It takes a will from the police. It’s going to take money, and it’s going to take resources, but we have to do this. We have to do better,” she said.
Jeremy Skibicki, 35, is facing charges of first-degree murder in the killings of Harris, Myran, Buffalo woman, and Rebecca Contois – whose partial remains were found both in a garbage bin in the city, and at the city’s landfill site.
Winnipeg police investigators told reporters they are concerned about possible asbestos deposits at Prairie Green, and feel the tonnes of compacted debris at the site would be too difficult for officers to sort through.
“Is it impossible? Nothing’s impossible. But is it likely that even if remains were found, that they would be discernible from animal remains – it’s a tough question,” Inspector Cam McKid explained on Tuesday.
“This is certainly beyond the scope of something we thought was feasible.”
First Nations leaders with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, in response, are calling for Winnipeg Police Chief Danny Smyth to step down.
According to Long Plain First Nation Chief Kyra Wilson, failing to search for the women’s remains does not instill a sense of public safety in the community.
“The last press conference that you held, you said that you had a good relationship with the Indigenous community. Well, this is me saying that we don’t have a good relationship right now,” Wilson conveyed as a message to Smyth during a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday.
According to a Statistics Canada report, Winnipeg ranks among Canada’s top three cities for homicide – and the numbers are increasing.
Nearly half of all “historical active missing persons cases” reported on the Winnipeg Police website involve Indigenous people.
In an emailed statement to APTN News, Marc Miller, minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, acknowledged Winnipeg as the “epi-center [sic] of this ongoing crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and 2SLGBTQI+ people.
“We will continue working with partners in Winnipeg, and across Canada, to end this crisis. [We look] forward to addressing these issues with federal, provincial, territorial and Indigenous partners at an FPTI meeting in January.”
Miller spoke to Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham about the situation. But a spokesperson for Miller said details of the “private phone call” would not be provided.
‘It’s called normalized genocide:’ Leah Gazan says change is needed
You don’t need to tell NDP MP Leah Gazan about the issues plaguing Winnipeg Centre – it’s her riding.
“One only has to look at the statistics and the research – it’s very clear Indigenous women, girls and diverse-gendered, two spirit people are targets in this country,” Gazan told Nation to Nation.
“This is an emergency.”
Gazan stood up in the House of Commons this week, imploring the federal government to declare a state of emergency and allocate funds and resources to the Winnipeg police service to ensure searches are undertaken
But she also sees a lack of movement on other issues identified in the MMIWG report.
“I just found out before coming here today that we lost another woman who froze to death in a bus shelter. When is this going to stop our communities need supports? Our families need support, we need investments in housing. We need harm reduction,” Gazan explained.
“We need investment in shelters and safe spaces, and we need a red dress alert. So, anytime a woman goes missing – like we have for the weather when there’s a storm – everybody knows about it and we can begin searching,” she added.
‘We take this pause and get this right’
Late Thursday afternoon, Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson joined Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham at City Hall to announce that the province has reached out to the landfill owners and asked that the owner pause in receiving more trash in the foreseeable future.
“It’s very important that for right now, we take this pause and get this right,” said Stefanson.
Gillingham said it’s not clear who will do the search if that is what is decided after police refused.
“There is a general agreement that we have to do something together,” said the mayor.
Gillingham, who sits on the police board, didn’t share his opinion on whether Winnipeg’s police chief should resign.