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Human rights complaint filed over Manitoba election ad against landfill search

WINNIPEG — The daughter of a slain First Nations woman has filed a human rights complaint against Manitoba’s Progressive Conservatives for an ad campaign about its decision not to search a Winnipeg-area landfill for her mother’s remains. 

“Families need to be protected … there should be laws in place to ensure that no political party could play off of a national tragedy. It should have never been a political thing,” Cambria Harris said in an interview Tuesday.

“This is a humanitarian search.”

Harris and Robyn Johnston, an advocate who represents the family, said they submitted the complaint last week. Harris posted a copy of the complaint on her Facebook page Monday. It alleges the party discriminated against Indigenous women and girls.

The “decision to run a campaign on its commitment to not search the landfill … sends a clear message to families and survivors that the Progressive Conservative Party is indifferent to such violence against missing and murdered Indigenous women (and) girls,” the complaint alleges. 

“Every time an Indigenous woman goes missing and every time an Indigenous woman is found murdered, it impacts the whole community. Not just for the day, not just through the investigation process, but in some cases, for lifetimes.”

The party did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The Manitoba Human Rights Commission also did not comment.

Police have said they believe the remains of Morgan Harris and another woman, Marcedes Myran, are in the Prairie Green landfill, north of Winnipeg, but won’t search the area due to safety concerns.

Police have also said they believe the women died at the hands of a serial killer.

Jeremy Skibicki is facing four counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Harris, Myran and two other women — Rebecca Contois, whose remains were found at the city-run Brady Road landfill, and an unidentified woman whose remains have yet to be located. Indigenous leaders have named the unidentified woman Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe, or Buffalo Woman.

Cambria Harris and Johnston filed the human rights complaint on behalf of Harris’ mother, Myran and Buffalo Woman, as well as Indigenous women, girls, LGBTQ and two-spirit people and their families. 

The Harris and Myran families have spent more than a year calling for a search of the landfill and took their fight to Parliament Hill.

Former premier Heather Stefanson and the previous Tory government opposed a search of the Prairie Green landfill, after a federally-funded feasibility study concluded a search was possible with some mitigations but toxic materials could pose a risk to workers and could cost up to $184 million to complete.

Ottawa commissioned another study last year for further research on how a search could be done.

The Tories highlighted their refusal during the fall provincial election campaign by taking out ads promising they would “stand firm” in opposing a search. 

Harris said it was upsetting to see the billboards on display. 

“It was discriminatory. It was telling Indigenous people that they’re not being valued and that if someone was to go missing in the future, and for whatever reason they ended up in a landfill, the Progressive Conservative Party was not going to search,” she said. 

Johnston called the decision to run the ad campaign “dangerous.”

“They were pushing a narrative that was going into that discriminatory area. ‘How far can we push and get away with this?’ is what it seemed like,” she said. 

The complaint hinges on Section 18 of the province’s Human Rights Code, which prohibits publishing, broadcasting, circulating or publicly displaying discriminatory signs and statements. 

Filing a complaint based on a party’s messaging, rather than a government service, adds a layer of “interesting complexity,” said human rights lawyer Allison Fenske. 

“There are a lot of legal recognitions of the right to free expression and certain legal protections around political activity,” said Fenske, who is also clinical counsel at the University of Manitoba’s law faculty. 

“That said, people still have the right to be free from discrimination … so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that certain actions taken in the course of that political activity could garner attention with respect to the human rights code.”

Harris and Johnston filed a second complaint against the Manitoba government alleging discrimination by refusing to provide resources to underserved populations. 

In that complaint, they said Manitoba routinely funds other kinds of dangerous, high-risk work, such as mining, and similar searches for remains have been done across Canada. 

Manitoba Premier Wab Kinew apologized to the families shortly after his NDP government was elected. He has expressed support for a landfill search but stopped short of providing a funding commitment. 

Kinew told reporters at an event in Brandon on Tuesday that his government is working with the families, governments and Indigenous leaders to take the time to get things right. 

“It’s been unfortunate that it has been politicized in the past, and we just want to make sure that we’re being respectful,” he said. “You will see us move forward in the first half of this year.”

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said in an email they have no updates on when the new feasibility report for a search would be released. 

— With files from Steve Lambert

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 16, 2024. 

Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press

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