With the Manitoba provincial election only days away and Premier Heather Stefanson’s Progressive Conservative party polling well behind the main opposition NDP, the stink of garbage dump politics has been in the air.
In a full-page advertisement in Saturday’s Winnipeg Free Press, the PCs highlighted Stefanson’s lack of support for the search of the Prairie Green landfill for the remains of two murdered indigenous women, 39-year-old Morgan Harris and 26-year Marcedes Myran.
“Stand firm,” reads the ad, next to a photo of Stefanson bearing the caption, “For health and safety reasons, the answer on the landfill dig just has to be no.”
Stefanson’s political enemies quickly reacted.
Chief Kyra Wilson of Long Plain Indian Reserve, the home community of both Harris and Myran, described the aggressive PC strategy as extremely hurtful to the families dealing with the loss of their loved ones.
“The fact that Heather Stefanson and the PCs are using a family’s pain to motivate their campaign messaging, I think that is disgusting. I think that it’s sick,” she said in an interview.
Cambria Harris, the daughter of Morgan Harris, accused Stefanson in a Facebook post of launching “a smear campaign” against her family’s desire for the landfill search.
Nahanni Fontaine, an NDP incumbent candidate, said, “It’s one of many dog whistles that we’re seeing in this election.”
In all fairness to Stefanson, more than dog whistle innuendo has marked her unwavering decision not to support a landfill search.
The politicization of this issue began with a December 6, 2022 remark from the same Cambria Harris – “Is human life not feasible?” – in an Ottawa news conference in response to the decision by the Winnipeg police that it was not feasible to excavate a rural garbage dump to search for the remains of her mother.
That decision followed the latest murder charges against Jeremy Skibicki who was first arrested on May 18, 2022 and charged with the first-degree murder of a different indigenous woman.
Winnipeg Police Service chief Danny Smyth said it would be nearly impossible to find the remains of these women given the passage of time, safety concerns, and the overwhelming amount of material recently deposited at the site, including 1,500 tonnes of animal remains. The garbage was later compacted with 9,000 tonnes of wet, heavy construction clay.
The search could also be dangerous, due to factors like potentially poisonous gases released at the landfill by decomposing waste and asbestos.
A later RCMP report supported this decision.
None of this prevented the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) and other indigenous organizations from asking the federal government for money to conduct its own feasibility study.
On February 8, 2023, Marc Miller, the then minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, allocated $500,000 to support an effort totally controlled by the AMC. As expected, the AMC, which has supported a landfill search from the get go, appointed a Landfill Search Feasibility Study Committee whose nine-member Landfill Search Feasibility Study Oversight Committee was composed solely of indigenous politicians, representatives of the two affected families, Indigenous activists, and elders. Hardly a disinterested body of people.
The objectivity of the study’s technical subcommittee can also be questioned. Though it employed two forensic experts, less than two pages of the report reviewed previous forensic searches of landfills.
The important and well known 2019 Paulsen and Moran study was given short shrift and saw its warning “A search should not be initiated if more than 60 days had passed between the body entering the landfill and the search being initiated,” arbitrarily softened to read “Paulsen and Moran (2019) caution initiating a search when more than 60 days has passed between the body entering the landfill and the search being initiated.”
If a search “should not be initiated” after 60 days, how could an 11-fold post-600-day “caution-initiating” search ever be remotely practical?
In a July 6 statement Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson, citing the feasibility study, expressed concern that a search with such low prospects of success would jeopardize the safety of the searchers while possibly adversely affecting the court case against Skibicki.
A week later, Marc Miller, then Minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, said the Manitoba government’s decision not to support a search was “heartless” and callous.
Still, “Heartless Heather” signs have been on full display ever since along with spurious charges of anti-indigenous racism.
That Heather Stefanson has now started fighting back hard on this issue should come as no surprise even though it is a very risky strategy: home to over 100,000 Indigenous people, the largest number of any Canadian city, and with the second largest proportion of Indigenous Canadians at 12%, the city of Winnipeg is the main battleground in this highly polarized election.
Though few public issues smell worse than an election campaign, whatever this one’s outcome, the demand to undertake a search, notwithstanding feasibility and other key constraints, will not easily or peacefully blow away.
Hymie Rubenstein is editor of REAL Indigenous Report and a retired professor of anthropology, the University of Manitoba.