The two women had been missing for more than seven months when police called their loved ones to a meeting.
The families of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran had taped up missing person posters and canvassed the areas around Winnipeg, Manitoba, where the Indigenous women spent time. No bit of intel was too small for cases R22-23037 and R22-50231. “Have you seen this woman?” they’d ask anyone. Some said they had.
But those tips led nowhere. So as the meeting with police last December approached, Kirstin Witwicki, a cousin of Harris, was uneasy but holding out hope. “You make bargains in your head,” she said, “to rationalize things that you know don’t make logical sense.”
What came next was a grim “blur of information.”
Harris, 39, and Myran, 26, members of the Long Plain First Nation, had been the victims of a serial killer who had preyed on Indigenous women, police said. Investigators had determined in June, soon after their disappearances, that their remains had been dumped in the Prairie Green landfill north of Winnipeg, police said, but it wasn’t safe or feasible to search it.
Other forensic analysts dispute that conclusion. Now the families are locked in a dispute with authorities over whether to search, and the treatment of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls generally.
Refusing to search, family members and their advocates say, betrays Canada’s pledges to reconcile with Indigenous people and address the disproportionately high rates of violence against Indigenous women and girls, which a national inquiry recently called a “genocide.”
“We can easily talk about reconciliation,” said Cathy Merrick, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. “But there’s no action with it, so it’s meaningless.”
Canadian officials have “made so many promises to Indigenous people,” said Jorden Myran, who was raised with Marcedes and calls her a sister. “This is just showing that nothing has changed. . . . If this was a White woman in the landfill, there would have been no question that there would have been a search.”
Police charged Jeremy Skibicki, 35, in December with first-degree murder in Harris and Myran’s deaths. He was already in custody for allegedly killing Rebecca Contois, 24, from the Crane River First Nation. Her obituary noted her “great love for animals.”
Skibicki has also been charged with murdering an unidentified woman who police believe was Indigenous. Elders have named her Buffalo Woman. Her remains have not been located.
Skibicki has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Police recovered Contois’s remains from a garbage bin in Winnipeg and the Brady Road landfill. Conditions for searching that landfill, Winnipeg police forensics chief Cam MacKid told reporters in December, were “preferable.”
The debris was loose, he said, not compacted. Only a few hours had passed between when Contois’s remains were dumped and when police became aware of it.
Waste at the Prairie Green landfill, in contrast, is covered with thousands of tons of wet heavy construction clay and compacted by heavy machinery, MacKid said. The presence of asbestos poses safety risks. The number of animal bones presents another challenge.
Further complicating matters, police believe the remains of Harris and Myran had spent 34 days in the landfill before investigators realized it. During that time, some 10,000 truckloads of waste were dumped there.
“When it comes up that there might be human remains at a landfill, we approach that with the mindset that we’re going to be searching,” MacKid told reporters. But after studying the site, he said, “We made the very difficult decision as a service that [it] wasn’t operationally feasible to conduct a search.”
Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson has backed that decision.
That’s not sitting well with the families of the victims, who note authorities’ willingness to conduct complex searches elsewhere, including the year-long search in 2002 of a 14-acre pig farm in British Columbia owned by the country’s most prolific serial killer. It uncovered the DNA of 33 women.
With $368,000 in funding from the federal government, the families and their advocates tapped several forensic analysts to conduct their own study on whether a search of the Prairie Green landfill might be possible.
In a report released in July, the analysts concluded that there are “considerable risks” to such an operation, including exposure to toxic chemicals such as asbestos and asphyxiants such as methane, but they can be mitigated. A search, they said, is “feasible.”
They also said it could take as long as 36 months and cost as much as $184 million in Canadian dollars - $135 million in U.S. dollars - and “a successful outcome is not guaranteed.”
Still, analysts said, not searching could cause “considerable distress” to victims’ families.
“It’s pretty clear to most who have read the study that risks can be mitigated, and the search can be conducted safely,” Kristopher Dueck, a forensic consultant who co-chaired the study, told reporters.
Winnipeg police declined to answer questions from The Washington Post.
Stefanson, leader of Manitoba’s Progressive Conservatives, has leaned into the dispute, featuring it prominently in newspaper ads and on billboards ahead of the provincial election on Tuesday.
At a debate in September, Stefanson asked New Democratic Party leader Wab Kinew about his support for a search.
“Why are you willing to put $184 million and Manitoba workers at risk for a search without a guarantee?” she asked.
Kinew, who is Indigenous, accused Stefanson of using the dispute to “divide us.”
“At this moment in the province’s history, I think it’s time for us to live up to that phrase ‘Every child matters,’” he said. “I will balance respect and dignity for these families while also being responsible with the public purse.”
Stefanson has suggested the federal government could take a role. Canada’s chief liaison to Indigenous people called her position “heartless.”
“The federal government’s willing to help,” Marc Miller said in July, when he was minister of Crown-Indigenous relations. “But . . . the government of Canada can’t nationalize a garbage dump or the waste disposal system of the city of Winnipeg.” (Miller has since moved to minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship.)
Stefanson did not respond to a request for comment.
Indigenous women make up 5 percent of women in Canada, but they represented 24 percent of all women homicide victims from 2015 to 2020.
A government-appointed commission said in 2019 that the deaths and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls in Canada amounted to a “race-based genocide.”
The panel issued 231 recommendations, framed as “calls to justice.” Indigenous leaders have said implementation has been slow.
“They’re sitting on somebody’s shelf collecting dust,” Merrick said.
The Harris and Myran families and their supporters have set up camps in Winnipeg to honor the women. Elroy Fontaine recently visited Camp Morgan. The body of his older sister, Tina Fontaine, was found in a Manitoba river in 2014 weighed down with rocks. The death of the 15-year-old girl galvanized public attention to the plight of Indigenous women and girls.
The Harris and Myran families traveled to Ottawa in September to meet with federal officials and to demonstrate on Parliament Hill. But they see little progress.
Gary Anandasangaree, Miller’s successor as minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, called the dispute “heart-wrenching.” He urged officials to avoid politicizing it.
“Our government will continue to work in partnership with Indigenous leaders, families, survivors, and communities to support healing and closure,” he said in a statement to The Post.
Harris and Witwicki’s grandmother attended the Portage-la-Prairie residential school, a government-funded, church-run institution that sought to assimilate Indigenous children into White European culture. Residential schoolchildren were punished for speaking their languages or practicing their traditions.
The trauma of that experience, Witwicki said, has been passed down from one generation to the next. Harris struggled with substance abuse and homelessness, her family members have said.
“Unfortunately, she didn’t really have it easy, but she was always very vocal, very feisty, very caring,” Witwicki said. “She had hopes and dreams like everyone else, but the life she was born into [was shaped] by colonization, and unfortunately, that contributed to her ending.”
Jorden Myran has fond memories of going on “adventures” with her sister, a “kindhearted person” who “loved to play jokes and prank people.”
She is hopeful that the election will bring a change in power and a search of the Prairie Green landfill. If not, she said, “We will go in there with our very own people and dig.”