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Daughter of slain First Nation woman files human-rights complaint over PC ads opposing landfill search

Cambria Harris, left, and Robyn Johnston have filed two human-rights complaints — including one against the Progressive Conservative Party over campaign ads framed around not searching a landfill for the remains of Indigenous women. The other was filed against the province for not allocating resources for the search. (Jaison Empson/CBC - image credit)

The daughter of a woman whose remains police believe are buried at a Winnipeg-area landfill has filed two human-rights complaints, including one against Manitoba's Progressive Conservative Party over ads opposing a landfill search that she says amount to discrimination.

"[To] see your mom being used for a political game to score points and votes was distressing," Cambria Harris, whose mother Morgan Harris's remains are believed to be at Prairie Green landfill north of the city, told CBC on Monday.

"It's distressing to know that someone would be so open and brazen about making those kinds of discriminatory comments to the point where they're willing to spend funds on those billboards and not put resources towards the vulnerable people their system is actively failing."

The complaint alleging a Human Rights Code breach was one of two filed with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission last week by Harris and family advocate Robyn Johnston.

The other, against the current provincial government, alleges Manitoba failed to allocate resources for searches of the Brady Road and Prairie Green landfills.

"We're following the next steps in order to get justice and in order to ensure the accountability of our governments," said Johnston, Harris's co-complainant and supporter.

"This is outright discrimination, it's systemic discrimination through policy, procedure or lack thereof, and it's been a long time coming."

Left to right: Morgan Beatrice Harris, Marcedes Myran and Rebecca Contois. Winnipeg police said on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, they have charged Jeremy Skibicki with first-degree murder in the deaths of all three women, as well as a fourth, whom community members have named  Mashkode Bizhiki'ikwe, or Buffalo Woman, because police do not know her identity.

Jeremy Skibicki is charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of, from left to right, Morgan Harris, Marcedes Myran and Rebecca Contois, as well as a fourth unidentified woman, whom community members have named Mashkode Bizhiki'ikwe, or Buffalo Woman. (Submitted by Cambria Harris, Donna Bartlett and Darryl Contois)

The PCs rolled out full-page newspaper ads, radio and large billboard ads in the lead-up to the October 2023 election, insisting the party would "stand firm" in its refusal to search the Prairie Green landfill if re-elected.

Then-premier Heather Stefanson said the decision not to search was due to health and safety reasons associated with the hazards present at landfills.

In December 2022, Winnipeg police said Jeremy Skibicki had been charged with first-degree murder in connection with the deaths of Morgan Harris, Marcedes Myran and Rebecca Contois. Remains of Contois were recovered in May of that year at the Brady Road landfill in south Winnipeg.

Police believe there is a fourth victim, who remains unidentified. Community members have named her Mashkode Bizhiki'ikwe, or Buffalo Woman.

Police Chief Danny Smyth said at the time that investigators believed the remains of Myran and Morgan Harris, both from Long Plain First Nation, were located at Prairie Green landfill, but that it wasn't feasible to to search for them.

That set off over a year of discussions between victims' families, police, Indigenous leaders as well as municipal, provincial and federal politicians over the feasibility of a search, odds of success and costs.

A feasibility study estimated the search could be done safely for between $84 to $184 million and could take one to three years. It identified risks but said those could be mitigated through safety strategies.

"Stand firm against the unsafe $184 million landfill dig," read one PC billboard ad.

A portion of a Progressive Conservative advertisement that ran in the Winnipeg Free Press two Saturdays before Manitoba's election.
A portion of a Progressive Conservative advertisement that ran in the Winnipeg Free Press two Saturdays before Manitoba's election.

A portion of a PC advertisement featuring then-leader Heather Stefanson and other candidates, including Rochelle Squires, that ran in the Winnipeg Free Press on Sept. 23, 2023. Squires called the ads 'deeply regrettable' one day after she lost her seat and her party lost the Oct. 3 election. (Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba)

Current Premier Wab Kinew apologized to families for the PCs' campaign ads shortly after he and the NDP were elected in October, adding, "We are going to try to bring your loved ones home."

To date, no firm search timelines or plans have been announced publicly.

"It just goes to show that there is no accountability for the lack of actions that are not being taken," said Cambria Harris. "It's been one year of sitting down repeatedly in meetings, room after room, politician to politician."

Harris's complaint against the PCs argues the ad campaign sent a message to families and survivors that the party "is indifferent to such violence against missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA+ people."

The complaint alleges the ads "emboldened" elements of the public to make discriminatory comments toward Indigenous people.

The complaint against the provincial government says Manitoba "routinely funds other kinds of dangerous, high-risk work such as mining" and cites previous examples of successful landfill searches for human remains.

Harris credits Johnston with helping to spearhead the complaints as an advocate for her family during the summer, when the City of Winnipeg filed an injunction to remove protesters blockading access to the Brady Road landfill.

Johnston said filing the human-rights complaints was an important way to work toward getting a resolution for families, Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQIA communities that have endured discrimination.

"Regardless of whether it was the previous government or current government … we're still waiting for consultation and family involvement with those governments," said Johnston.

"We're calling on the government right now: start putting your money where your mouth is."

An aerial view of the Prairie Green landfill in the rural municipality of Rosser in Manitoba.
An aerial view of the Prairie Green landfill in the rural municipality of Rosser in Manitoba.

An aerial view of the Prairie Green landfill in the rural municipality of Rosser in Manitoba. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

In a written statement to CBC News, a provincial government spokesperson said Manitobans elected the NDP based on its focus of "bringing people across our province together."

"Our government remains committed to searching the landfill and ensuring MMIWG2S people and their families are given the dignity and respect that all Manitobans deserve," the statement reads in part.

CBC News requested a response from the Progressive Conservatives on Monday, but did not hear back.

Details from a federally-supported search feasibility review will be discussed during a meeting this week with family and Long Plain leadership, according to an Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs spokesperson. The report hasn't been made public.