Decisions on next steps in a potential search for the remains of two Indigenous women believed to be at a landfill outside Winnipeg are being worked through with the option of bringing in outside help, the city’s police board said Friday.
Investigators believe the remains of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran ended up in the Prairie Green landfill in the spring. But police decided not to conduct a search as the chances of finding them are low due to the amount of time that has passed and the fact that 10,000 truckloads of refuse were dumped in the area in the following months.
The Winnipeg Police Board met with police Chief Danny Smyth and investigators on Thursday night, after calls to search the site intensified.
Conversations focused on consulting waste management experts and forensic anthropologists to determine what outside resources are needed to go ahead with a search, said city Coun. Markus Chambers, who is also the chairman of the police board.
“(It was about) getting a position on how it can be done in order to provide something for these families that demonstrates that they matter,” Chambers said.
“We don’t want to be disingenuous in this. It is about trying to find some closure for these families.”
Chambers is confident a search can take place but stopped short of committing to a timeline. He acknowledged the logistical and safety concerns outlined by police.
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Trash at the landfill is compacted with mud at a depth of about 12 metres that would require heavy equipment to dig through, Chambers said.
Anything collected would have to be inspected off-site and there is also the possibility that any remains found may belong to an animal or a different person, he added.
The councillor said he has had businesses with experience in excavation digs reach out to him to offer their support.
Indigenous family members of missing or murdered women have expressed concerns that their loved ones may be in landfills.
“I don’t want to speculate. I don’t want to say for certain, but there’s a potential that there could be other bodies there,” Chamber said. “So, DNA testing is going to be a component of it.”
Operations at the landfill have been halted as the city and the province discuss next steps.
Premier Heather Stefanson said she reached out to management Thursday to discuss stopping trash disposal. The operator told her it had already stopped in the area.
“They were indicative that they were supportive of this,” Stefanson said Friday at a special premiers meeting.
“We are working very co-operatively with the owner and the operator of the landfill site.”
Jeremy Skibicki is charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of Harris, Myran, Rebecca Contois and a fourth unidentified woman that APTN News is calling Buffalo Woman.
Police said they believe the four women were killed in the spring, although investigators have so far only located the remains of Contois. They were found in a garbage bin in the city and in a separate landfill.
Southern Chiefs Organization
The family of Harris and Indigenous leaders have called for the police chief’s resignation in light of the force’s decision not to search the landfill.
The Southern Chiefs’ Organization (SCO), which represents 34 First Nations in southern Manitoba, said the landfill should be declared a crime scene immediately.
“The Winnipeg police should be using all their resources to find these women,” Grand Chief Jerry Daniels said in a statement.
Chambers said he understands families are frustrated, but the police board will focus on moving forward.
“It’s about working together and not pointing fingers. It’s not easy work and emotions do get high around homicides. I understand it,” he said.
“But let’s focus on getting justice for the families.”
Chambers also said the public should be reminded that police are still trying to determine the identity of Buffalo Woman.
Daniels said he’s standing with Cambria and Kera Harris, daughters of the slain Morgan Harris.
“There is such a huge loss of trust between First Nations citizens and the Winnipeg Police Service. Now is the time for the Winnipeg police service to take swift action in working to rebuild trust with our nations,” Daniels said.
The SCO joined the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) and the women’s family in calling for Smyth’ resignation.
At a press conference in Ottawa Thursday, the chief of Long Plain First Nation, where Harris and Myran are from, called for a change in leadership at the police service.
“I’m standing here today to ask for the resignation of the chief of police, for the Winnipeg Police Service, Danny Smyth,” Kyra Wilson said.
Police said Monday, they’ve received many tips from the public after releasing pictures of a jacket the woman may have worn.
Harris’ daughters, Cambria and Kera Harris expressed their disappointment in the service’s decision not to conduct a search.
“Not only have you refused to search these landfills, you have presented no alternative routes for how we can give these women peace,” Kera Harris said. “We have been the ones thinking of different resolutions for this issue. And we should not have to be the ones coming up with ways to make you do your job better.”
Her sister Cambria also addressed the Chief of Police.
“We saw this happen with residential schools, and here you are, once again, creating unmarked graves of Indigenous peoples,” she said.
AMC Grand Chief Cathy Merrick compared the Winnipeg case to similar cases elsewhere.
“In Toronto, where there was a missing Caucasian man, and they found him like a needle in a haystack. In a landfill that was bigger than what we’re talking about in Manitoba. If they can do that, Winnipeg can do that.”
Smythe admitted at a press conference earlier this week that it’s not lack of resources stopping them but safety.
“The circumstances, combined with the safety hazard, form the basis of a difficult decision not to go forward with the search at Prairie Green,” Smythe said.
Late Friday, Smyth issued a statement saying that he won’t resign as chief. He added that he’s “supportive of further exploring whether it is possible to recover the remains of Marcedes Myran and Morgan Harris. I will work with whomever the Mayor assigns to this important initiative.
Meanwhile, more than 1,600 people have now signed an online petition calling for police to search the dump.
Editor’s Note: The original story said that petition asked for Winnipeg’s police chief to be fired. It only calls for the dump to be searched.