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Study finds search for women's remains at landfill could take years, cost up to $184M

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WINNIPEG -

A search for the remains of two First Nations women at a Winnipeg-area landfill could take up to three years and cost $184 million, says a study examining whether a successful search is possible.

The study, obtained by The Canadian Press, looked at the various scenarios and challenges that come with searching a landfill and concluded a canvass of the Prairie Green Landfill is feasible.

It warns there are "considerable risks" due to exposure to toxic chemicals and asbestos. But it says forgoing a search could be more harmful for the families of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran.

"Not conducting the search could cause considerable distress to victim family members," the report says.

"The impact of not conducting a search and humanitarian recovery for remains of Morgan and Marcedes, when it is possible that they are in the Prairie Green Landfill, could have long-lasting repercussions on the families, friends, loved ones and First Nations and Indigenous communities in Manitoba and across Canada."

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and representatives from Long Plain First Nation, to which Harris and Myran belonged, are to hold a news conference Friday about the study.

An Indigenous-led committee spearheaded by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs commissioned the study after Winnipeg police said in December that they believed the remains of Harris and Myran are in the landfill north of the city. But police said they would not be searching the site because of the passage of time and the large volume of material deposited there.

The committee included family members, First Nations leaders, forensic experts and representatives from the province and the city.

The study says it's not guaranteed a search would locate the women's remains.

It could take between one and three years and would cost $84 million to $184 million.

The report says police believe the women's remains were left in a garbage bin three days apart in early May 2022. The contents of the dumpster were sent to the Prairie Green Landfill on May 16.

Jeremy Skibicki has been charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of the two women, as well as two others -- Rebecca Contois, whose remains were found at the Brady Landfill, and an identified women Indigenous leaders have named Mashkode Bizhiki'ikwe, or Buffalo Woman. Police have also not found her remains.

The report says governments should consider potential societal costs of conducting a search, including the emotional impact on families.

"Nothing about a potential search of this size and scale is easy, and the toll on the families and First Nations and Indigenous communities must be considered with the appropriate supports being made available," it says.

"Until Marcedes and Morgan are properly returned home, these women, their families and all our communities endure a sacrilege."

Search plans proposed in the report take into consideration family wishes, traditional teachings, hazards and risk, search processes, equipment and personnel requirements, timelines and costs.

The committee referred to studies on other landfill searches and says they are complex, can be extensive and there is no "one-size-fits-all approach."

Some of the biggest concerns outlined in the report were around health and safety. Hazardous materials teams are recommended to be on site at all times to monitor air quality, act as safety officers and perform decontamination of personnel who are in an excavation pit or working closely with excavated materials.

Another concern is the possibility of side-slope failure. The report says excavating along a slope of debris could result in a landslide.

The committee says using a conveyor belt to search through debris would be the best option.

In order to proceed with a search, Prairie Green would need to submit a proposal to a regulatory body to approve the excavation and transportation of materials.

The report doesn't say who should pay for the search. It was submitted last week to the office of federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller. Ottawa provided $500,000 to the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs for the study.

Cambria Harris says in the report it feels like she has been living in a "horror movie" since she found out about her mother's killing and the police decision not to search the landfill.

Harris took her rage to Parliament Hill in December and demanded governments take the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls more seriously.

"These women were never respected in life, and they were failed miserably by governments and different levels of systems," she wrote. "In life and death, we still failed them by making decisions not to search for remains known to be there for months."

The study also calls for increased funding for social supports and homeless shelters. It recommends mandatory GPS tracking systems and rear-facing cameras in garbage trucks in Canada, as well as surveillance video installed at entrances and exits at landfills.

Premier Heather Stefanson said she had not seen the report and her heart goes out to the families.

"Every time we go through another milestone on this it, it's a reminder on the horrific situation that we're dealing with," she said Friday at an unrelated event.

She would not commit to funding any aspects of the search until her office has a chance to go over the report.

   This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 12, 2023.

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