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Canada Has “Been Failing My Family for Over 100 Years,” Says Indigenous Activist

Families of missing and murdered Indigenous women have no recourse, says Cambria Harris whose mother was murdered.

Small red dresses with the names of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit people hang near a sign for Camp Morgan on the fence surrounding the Brady Road landfill outside Winnipeg, Manitoba, on March 3, 2023.

On May 16, 2022, the remains of Rebecca Contois, a member of O-Chi-Chak-Ko-Sipi First Nation, was discovered in a garbage bin outside the home of the suspected murderer, Jeremy Skibicki. More of her remains were later discovered at the Brady Road landfill in Winnipeg, Canada. Months later, the bodies of Marcedes Myran and Morgan Harris, both from Long Plain First Nation, were presumed by police to be in Prairie Green landfill in Winnipeg. Police believe that an unidentified Indigenous woman named by community elders as Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe (Buffalo Woman), was murdered on March 15, 2022. Skibicki was arrested and charged on May 18, 2022, with first-degree murder of Contois and charged on December 1, 2022, in connection with the other three women’s deaths.

Winnipeg police have come under fire from the Indigenous community for refusing to search the Prairie Green or Brady Road landfills for Myran, Harris or Buffalo Woman. In February 2023, after community calls for justice, the federal government committed $500,000 for a feasibility study to determine if police can search the Prairie Green landfill. Winnipeg police have stated that too much time has passed and too much debris has been dumped and compacted in the landfill to make a search feasible. They’ve also said that the garbage trucks being used at the time in the area of the landfill in question weren’t outfitted with GPS or cameras, creating another barrier to their search. No such study is being conducted for the Brady Road landfill.

A frontline camp, called Camp Morgan in honor of Harris, was erected at the Brady Road landfill. A blockade was set up in December 2022, halting all operations, with the permanent encampment later created, both by area Indigenous organizers with the support of Cambria Harris, the oldest daughter of Morgan Harris. The city of Winnipeg alleged that the camp cost them approximately Can$900,000 over three weeks in December 2022 alone.

Cambria Harris spoke with Jen Deerinwater about her mom, the investigation and Camp Morgan.

Jen Deerinwater: What do you want the world to know about your mom and the other women?

Cambria Harris: These women were more than a story. They were human beings who had lives full of stories, such as my mother. She was a mom of five and she got her kids taken away to care [Child and Family Services, or CFS] and she ended up homeless. She fought to survive, which I find really sad that she struggled for so long only to be murdered in the end. She was really funny, bright and resilient.

Even to grow up in CFS, I still had visits with my mom. She wasn’t afraid to show me what she was going through and why she wasn’t able to be there for my siblings. I was the oldest. I had to grow up far too soon, as well as my mom. She gave birth to me at 18 and she had her life taken at 39. She had the soul of a UFC fighter and she fought for what she loved.

What’s happening with Camp Morgan?

We’re protesting at the Brady landfill because if we look back at the timelines, back to when Buffalo Woman was murdered, and if they had dug as far back as Rebecca who was murdered in May 2022, which is two months after Buffalo Woman, she could quite possibly be buried within the landfill. I just want to be able to give closure because they [police] haven’t provided any reasoning as to why my mother is believed to be in the Prairie Green landfill while Buffalo Woman is believed to be in the Brady.*

Red dresses commemorating the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit people seen on the fence around the Brady Road landfill outside Winnipeg, Manitoba, where the the remains of Rebecca Contois, a member of O-Chi-Chak-Ko-Sipi First Nation were found.
Red dresses commemorating the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit people seen on the fence around the Brady Road landfill outside Winnipeg, Manitoba, where the the remains of Rebecca Contois, a member of O-Chi-Chak-Ko-Sipi First Nation were found.

We have support from around the world, as far as Germany. I’ve had news outlets from as far as Sweden come see Camp Morgan. A lot of it is community work, the communities who keep our warriors fed and the warriors who keep it running for my mother, Morgan. I also sell T-shirts for Camp Morgan.

What has your experience been like with government officials, such as Winnipeg police or Prime Minister Justin Trudeau?

It’s been really frustrating dealing with them [police] because they didn’t want to speak. When we were going to put together our Indigenous life feasibility study committee, it was then that they were going to offer support by putting together their own team.

In September, they decided to finally take my blood sample to identify my mother. My mother wasn’t identified until December 1. When they sat my family and I down, members of the homicide unit told us that my mother was believed to be murdered by this serial killer. They told me that they didn’t have a body and didn’t know the location.

These remains have been known, my mother and Marcedes, since June in the Prairie Green landfill.

That same night, I went to a vigil held outside of the [alleged] murderer’s house. I spoke out to various news outlets, pleading that we needed to find where my mother’s remains were. Numerous Indigenous organizations heard my calls and they sent me to Parliament.

The night prior to when I was to speak in Parliament, the Winnipeg police met me at the airport. They told us that my mother and Marcedes were believed to be in the Prairie Green landfill. They proceeded to show me a PowerPoint presentation, comparing both the Prairie Green and the Brady Road landfills and why they were able to search for Rebecca’s remains in June and why they won’t search the Prairie Green now. I told them I wouldn’t accept that.

They told me they didn’t want me to tell anyone about the PowerPoint presentation because they didn’t want to tell serial killers how to do their jobs. I called them out on that the next day in Ottawa. And what did they do a couple of hours later? They hold [a] news conference showing their presentation.

They told you that they did not want you to mention this to anyone, including the prime minister?

Yes, because they knew that I was going to speak at the news conference the following morning.

The one thing they did say to me was because my mother, as well as Marcedes Myran, were believed to be in the Prairie Green landfill and not the Brady landfill, that I was to correct that misinformation because they didn’t want people protesting or holding vigils at the wrong landfill.

They wanted you to correct their mistake?

Yeah, and then they get mad that I blew the whistle on them. Months later, these documents are finally getting released saying that the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] has offered support [in December 2022] and the Winnipeg police didn’t take it.

How was your meeting with Prime Minister Trudeau?

He was speaking at the AFN [Assembly of First Nations] conference. After his speech, he said to us, “Girls, I am so sorry. We shouldn’t have to meet like this. I’m sending my condolences to you and quite honestly, I commemorate you for your bravery.”

That’s when I looked at him and I said, “No, we shouldn’t have to meet like this.” He asked if he could give us a hug and tried walking away. That’s when I pointed at him and was like, “No, hold on.” I looked him right in the eye [and] said, “Their remains have been believed to be there since June; my mother was murdered, and three other women were as well; one remains unidentified. They didn’t take my DNA sample until September. She wasn’t identified until December 1 so that’s three to five months too late. The police say it’s not feasible to search.” The look on his face said it all. He said he’s going to do everything he could to help bring my mother home.

The MMIWG2 [Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit People] inquiry had numerous women and families involved in its creation. All the time and the energy that went into it and yet none of the 231 calls for justice have been implemented.

These calls for justice are collecting dust in Parliament. The government announced a $2.2 billion budget looking into MMIWG2 to end it, and still nothing.

The inquiry was conducted under the Trudeau administration. Do you believe the government is going to take your call seriously or is it just lip service?

I think it’s lip service. A big reason the feasibility study is being conducted is because of myself and everyone who has come together to take a stance for Camp Morgan. When they say that they’re going to do everything they can to help [end] this crisis and genocide of our women, but provide no further steps on how they’re going to prevent it and only provide statistics that continue to rise, it angers me and gives me more of a reason to stand up. I’m hoping that what I’m doing opens up a way for other people to take that stance and put that pressure on levels of government to finally step up or step down.

Why do you think the Winnipeg police said it wasn’t feasible to search the landfills?

I hate to say it, but I think they’re just racist. I say that because [Winnipeg Police Chief] Danny Smyth himself claims to be an advocate of MMIWG, but I haven’t seen any of that over the last three months. I called for his resignation.

It went back to Tanya Nepinak, whose remains are still in the Brady landfill. Or Tina Fontaine who was murdered in 2014. Her murderer walks free and was protected. And all the other missing and murdered Indigenous women, and men too, who get no justice to this day. Indigenous communities put together the funding from their own pockets to search for their loved ones with no help from police or RCMP. It’s them [the community] who find and bring them home a lot of the time.

Red dresses commemorate the crisis of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit people on the fence around Brady Road landfill outside Winnipeg, Manitoba, on March 3, 2023.
Red dresses commemorate the crisis of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit people on the fence around Brady Road landfill outside Winnipeg, Manitoba, on March 3, 2023.

With our MMIWG2 crisis in the so-called U.S., many of us have demanded tribal sovereignty in order to address the crisis. Do you believe if your tribal governments had more sovereignty, it would help end this crisis or bring justice?

Yeah, and I think that we need a lot more Indigenous people in Parliament. Parliament’s racist, and we see Indigenous members of Parliament step out every day because of the oppression they’re facing.

Before colonialism happened, women were never considered inferior in our society. It wasn’t until the [white] men came over and started stripping not only Indigenous women, but also men, of their rights that we were swept below the surface. We believed in the clan mother system. Our women were the matriarchs of our society. We were the leaders. I think we need to go back to our teachings as well as getting together for community gatherings and not for reasons like Camp Morgan, when our women are mercilessly murdered.

What would justice look like for you at this point?

Justice for me would be acknowledging that what is happening to our Indigenous women and girls is genocide. This is a sad and shocking reality for Indigenous women like myself, and other vulnerable women as well, especially on the streets and in care and on reservations where suicide rates and incarceration rates are higher. In Manitoba alone, over 80 percent of kids in care are Indigenous, and in Canada [as a whole], over 50 percent of kids in care are Indigenous.

Justice for me would be finally ending the normalization of degradation of our people, because it was a known white supremacist who mercilessly murdered these four women. All the evidence was there: he was a part of a far right group and he posted some scary things. He was caught and released and caught and released and known for beating his ex-wives and girlfriends. He got off scot-free.

Then he moved to shelters to prey on vulnerable Indigenous women, where all these women were taken from, and nobody did a thing. All the warning signs were there. It makes you wonder how many other men like that are out there.

Looking at the issues of MMIWG2, it really seems to be an epidemic across lands. You name this as a genocide.

People hate when I say that. They hate that I make the comparison to residential schools. They hate that I make the connection to history, being able to lead it as far back as colonization when settlers came over and they started taking our women. They started taking their children to the residential schools, as well as the Sixties Scoop to the child welfare system. My grandparents and great-grandparents were in residential schools.

It does feel like a continuation when the government’s been failing my family for over 100 years. My great-grandparents, Eva and Donald Francis, were forced to escape the Indian reserve because of insufficient food rations provided by the federal Indian agent. They were forced to live in a landfill with their rundown shack surrounded by garbage… so there’s a correlation.

It angers me that I’ve been fighting for this for so long. When [Tina] Fontaine was murdered, it struck a nerve with me because I was a child in care when it happened. Fontaine was around my age at that time. I was holding a sign that said, “I will not be next.” Now I’m doing it for my mother, as well as my daughter and the younger generations, because it makes me question what kind of future they’re going to have if it’s as sour as it is now. What’s going to happen in the next 10 to 20 years if nothing gets done?

NOTE: In a December press conference on the landfills, Winnipeg police said they don’t know where Buffalo Woman is.

Since Truthout’s interview with Cambria, Linda Mary Beardy from Lake St. Martin First Nation was found at the Brady Road landfill on April 3. The police have stated that there’s no evidence to suggest homicide. Her death isn’t connected to Skibicki as he is currently incarcerated.

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