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'Finally getting started': Plan approved to search landfill for women's remains

WINNIPEG — The Manitoba government has given environmental approval to a planned search of a landfill for the remains of two slain First Nations women.
Manitoba Premier Wab Kinew speaks during the media availability at the 2024 Western Premiers Conference in Whitehorse, Monday, June 10, 2024. A plan to search a Winnipeg-area landfill for the remains of two slain First Nations women has been given the green light by environmental regulators. CANADIAN PRESS/Crystal Schick

WINNIPEG — The Manitoba government has given environmental approval to a planned search of a landfill for the remains of two slain First Nations women.

For some family members who have been fighting for a search for more than 18 months, the news was a welcome relief.

"They're going to be starting right away, hopefully by the end of summer or something, and they can work right through winter. So it's good," Donna Bartlett, the grandmother of Marcedes Myran, said after meeting with Premier Wab Kinew on Tuesday.

"We still have a long road ahead of us, but we are finally getting started," read a message posted on social media by Myran's sister Jorden Myran.

Police believe the remains of Marcedes Myran and Morgan Harris are in the Prairie Green Landfill, a privately run facility north of Winnipeg.

Jeremy Skibicki has admitted to killing Harris, Myran and two other Indigenous women — Rebecca Contois, whose remains were found in a different landfill, and an unidentified woman an Indigenous grassroots community has named Mashkode Bizhiki'ikwe, or Buffalo Woman, whose remains have not been located.

Skibicki's first-degree murder trial wrapped up Monday with closing arguments and the judge has reserved his decision until next month. Defence lawyers argued Skibicki should be found not criminally responsible due to mental illness.

Manitoba's former Progressive Conservative government earlier rejected calls to search the landfill, saying asbestos and other materials would pose a threat to searchers and the effort has no guarantee of success.

The Tories took out advertisements in last year's provincial election campaign saying they would "stand firm" in not conducting the search.

The New Democrats promised to search the landfill before winning the election. Kinew said Tuesday the groundwork for the search has already been laid.

"We are doing the work of setting up the search facility and ensuring that we have the health and safety protocols," Kinew told reporters.

The plan, approved by the provincial Environment Department, would see protections put in place to prevent watery runoff of toxic materials. Workers would need to be trained and new infrastructure would have to be built.

Unlike many other landfills, Prairie Green accepts asbestos, a material that can cause cancer if ingested. Materials containing asbestos are required to be put in thick double bags to prevent the asbestos from becoming airborne.

The environmental plan calls for all operations to stop when such bags are discovered. Non-essential personnel would be required to evacuate upwind and the bags would be disposed of.

The Manitoba and federal governments have pledged $40 million for the search, which is far below cost estimates put forward in earlier studies developed by the victims' families.

Kinew said he is confident the money will cover the required work and said the government has a better idea of where the human remains are likely to be found, which will narrow the search area.

With the environmental plan approved, the proposed search now needs building permits for an indoor search facility and a centre where families would be offered support.

The search could run until early 2026, Kinew said.

"We are going to ensure that the people who do conduct the search are kept safe, while we deliver on the compassionate mission here, which is trying to recover the remains of two of our fellow Manitobans."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 11, 2024.

Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press