’We are not trash’: Horrors suffered by Canada’s Indigenous women

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’We are not trash’: Horrors suffered by Canada’s Indigenous women

PRINCE RUPERT, Canada: A mountain of windswept garbage. Corpses underneath. For years, the remains of a serial killer lay in a landfill – the latest chapter in a long history of violence against Canada's indigenous women.
Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran were raped, killed, dismembered and thrown out with the garbage in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Police believe their remains are buried deep in the Prairie Green landfill.
The partial remains of another victim, Rebecca Contois, were found in two locations – in a city trash can and at a separate landfill. The body of a fourth, unidentified woman in her 20s – dubbed Buffalo Woman – is still missing.

Red ribbons symbolizing missing and murdered Indigenous women are attached to a fence at the Prairie Green landfill in Stony Mountain, Manitoba, Canada, April 29, 2024. (AFP)

Her killer, Jeremy Skibicki, now 37 and linked to white supremacists, confessed in 2022 and was brought to trial. A verdict is expected next month.
However, her relatives were unable to lay her to rest because excavations to search for her remains have not yet begun.
In Canada, indigenous women are disproportionately victims of violence and often receive inadequate protection from the authorities, who are accused of paying little attention to their situation.
Instead, they are “thrown in the trash,” says Elle Harris, Morgan Harris’ 19-year-old daughter.

Aerial view of the Prairie Green landfill, where the bodies of murdered women are allegedly buried, in Stony Mountain, Manitoba, Canada, April 28, 2024. A mountain of windswept garbage. (AFP)

Elle is a member of the Long Plains tribe and wears a traditional skirt. Her hair is braided into a long braid.
She says her mother had a difficult life and was homeless for years after losing custody of her five children due to drug addiction.
“My mother was taken just like that, just like that. And I wish I could see her again, talk to her again,” she told AFP.
Instead, she and her family are keeping vigil near the Prairie Green landfill. They have set up teepees, lit a sacred fire, donned red dresses and displayed a banner calling for compassion: “What if it was your daughter?”
For months – during the windswept Winnipeg winter – they took turns staying in the makeshift camp, trying, Elle said, “to prove that we are something, that we are not scum and that we cannot simply be thrown in the trash.”
Furthermore, this is part of their campaign to put pressure on the authorities to dig up the rubble dump. The dump has continued to be used since Skibicki's confession, and new truckloads of rubble arrive regularly to be piled on top of the rubble that is already there.
The green light for excavations was finally given in late 2023, shortly after Winnipeg elected Wab Kinew, Canada's first indigenous provincial leader.
However, the search teams have to dig through tons of garbage and rubble. According to independent experts, such an operation involves considerable risks, as it may contain toxic materials such as asbestos.
Ultimately, it could take years and cost tens of millions of dollars.
Morgan Harris' family has promised to keep vigil until her remains are recovered.

Skibicki deliberately attacked indigenous women he met in homeless shelters, prosecutors said in his trial, which began in late April. A judge is expected to hand down a verdict on July 11.
At the time of his arrest, then-Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Marc Miller said the case was part of a “legacy of a devastating history” of treatment of Indigenous women in Canada “that continues to reverberate today.”
“Nobody can stand in front of you and say with full conviction that this will not happen again, and I find that kind of shameful,” he said.
Indigenous women are heavily overrepresented among victims of femicide in Canada.
They represent about a fifth of all women killed in gender-related homicides in the country – even though they make up only five percent of the female population, according to official figures covering an eleven-year period up to 2021.
This year in particular, the number of gender-based murders of indigenous victims was more than three times higher than the number of murders of girls and women overall, the report said.
“Canada is seen as a country that upholds rights,” said Hilda Anderson-Pyrz, an activist who has been fighting for indigenous women’s rights for years.
But when “we are thrown into landfills like garbage, it clearly shows that something is very wrong in this country.”
In 2019, a national commission even went so far as to describe the thousands of murders and disappearances of First Nations women over the years as “genocide.”
They are isolated, marginalized and severely affected by intergenerational trauma and are therefore exposed to disproportionate violence. This stems from “state actions and omissions that have their roots in colonialism and colonial ideologies that are based on the assumption of superiority,” the commission concluded.
Some families of Skibicki’s victims also come to this conclusion.
Marcedes Myran's young children don't understand why she is in a landfill, admits her great-grandmother Donna Bartlett, who is raising them in her small, crowded home on the outskirts of Winnipeg.
Marcedes was a friendly, cheerful girl who liked to play pranks, the 66-year-old remembers.
She regrets the authorities' reluctance to search the landfill.
“If (the women) had been white, they would have done it immediately,” she says.

Further west, in British Columbia, there is a hundreds-mile stretch of road known as the “Highway of Tears” – a haunting monument, activists say, to the many ways Canada has failed Indigenous women.
The nature here is spectacular – the snow-capped mountains, the giant trees, the meandering Skeena River, waterfalls and abundant wildlife such as foxes, bears and eagles.
But on the side of the road there is a strange sight: red dresses nailed to posts, symbolizing missing women, faded photos of young girls with beaming smiles, messages promising rewards for information about their disappearance.
Since the 1960s, at least 50 women and several men have disappeared along this 725-kilometer-long highway that connects Prince Rupert on the Pacific coast near Alaska with Prince George.
It is believed that all of the young Native Americans disappeared. Many vanished while hitchhiking or walking home along Highway 16. No community in the region was spared.
Tamara Chipman, a member of the Wet'suwet'en First Nation, was on her way to Prince Rupert to visit friends when she was last seen hitchhiking on September 21, 2005. She was 22 and the mother of a young boy.
Her aunt, Gladys Radek, described her as a spirited young woman who “loved speedboats and fishing and also life” in a region marked by social decay and drugs.
In these isolated and impoverished communities, connected only by a single highway lined with dense forests and without proper telephone service or public transportation, many young people are forced to hitchhike.
They often meet temporary workers who have come to work in the local mines: mostly well-paid, single men.
The Chipman case, like most disappearances on this route, was never solved.

When Lana Derrick disappeared in the area 25 years ago, “we initially had some difficulty getting the support of the RCMP to take the case seriously,” says her cousin Wanda Good, referring to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Many of these families have observed that efforts to find women stigmatized as drug addicts, prostitutes, or alcoholics are mediocre at best.
In several cases, the families stated that they had organized the initial search themselves – both for their missing relatives and for possible witnesses.
The head of the RCMP admitted to the national commission in 2018 that for too many Indigenous families, “the RCMP was not the police force it needed to be during this terrible time in your life.”
Studies show that there is a deep-rooted mistrust between the police and the indigenous population. This mistrust dates back to decades when the police were used as the armed arm of the Canadian government to impose a policy of forced assimilation on the country's indigenous peoples.
At the RCMP headquarters in British Columbia on the outskirts of Vancouver, Constable Wayne Clary, a veteran homicide investigator, tries to explain the Highway of Tears tragedy.
“The northern areas are very, very isolated. Some of the activities that these women engage in – not just indigenous women, but other women as well – put themselves at the disposal of men who target women,” he says.
He rejects the accusation of botched investigations, but admits: “There may have been a lack of communication in the past.”

Clary is part of the E-Pana unit, which was created in 2005 – more than 30 years after the disappearances began – to “determine whether one or more serial killers are responsible for the incident.”
The unit's list includes 18 women – 13 murders and five disappearances between 1969 and 2006. So far, no connection between the cases has been established.
The investigation is ongoing, but the special unit is not handling new murder cases. The most recent murder case – that of Chelsey Quaw, a 29-year-old Indigenous woman who was reported missing after leaving her home in the Saik'uz First Nation – dates back to last November.
There has been progress in recent years, says Good: the police are listening more closely to families and new cell phone relay antennas have been installed on the streets.
“We are making progress, but very, very slowly, at a snail’s pace,” she says.
But 69-year-old Radek believes it is a collective tragedy that the country does not want to face.
She speaks slowly and seriously, her voice sometimes becoming increasingly angry with rage, as she describes how she began traveling around the country “to tell the stories of all these women with broken destinies, to be the voice of these families because they have been silenced.”
Her dilapidated van is full of photos of the missing people. As she drives through the surrounding villages on the Highway of Tears, residents often stop to talk to her.
Her fight has now taken her outside of Canada to conferences and demonstrations where she wants to raise awareness of the plight of women.
“I will never stop searching,” she says.