Daughter of suspected serial killer’s victim files human rights complaints
January 15, 2024
Treaty One Territory, Manitoba
Documents allege Progressive Conservative party election ads, provincial government’s refusal to fund landfill search discriminated against Indigenous people
By: Tyler Searle, Wpg Free Press >> Read on Winnipeg Free Press here.
The daughter of a woman believed slain by an alleged serial killer has accused Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative party of discrimination, claiming officials violated the Human Rights Code when they ran election ads proclaiming their decision not to search a Winnipeg-area landfill for human remains.
Cambria Harris submitted the complaint on behalf of her mother Morgan Harris, Marcedes Myran and an unidentified woman known as Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe (Buffalo Woman), all of whom are believed to be victims of the same killer.
Jeremy Skibicki is accused of killing them and a fourth victim, Rebecca Contois.
All four women were Indigenous.
During the provincial leadership race last summer and fall, the PC party campaigned on its decision not to search the privately owned Prairie Green Landfill, located north of the city in the Rural Municipality of Rosser, for possible human remains.
“What happened was not right, and it was absolutely a violation of human rights and discriminatory to Indigenous people,” Harris told the Free Press Monday.
“It’s incredibly important to continue to hold all levels of government accountable.”
Harris and advocate Robyn Johnston signed and submitted the complaint to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission last Thursday.
The two complainants also filed a second human rights grievance targeting the province for “refusing to make the funds and resources available to search the Brady Road and Prairie Green landfills” for the remains of missing and murdered Indigenous people.
They have not yet heard any response from either the province or the Progressive Conservatives, Harris said.
Both complaints are predicated on allegations that provincial and party officials discriminated against Indigenous people.
The claims, which Harris published on social media Monday, point to messaging used during the Tories’ election campaign, including billboards, radio and newspaper ads displaying phrases such as, “Stand firm against the unsafe $184 million landfill dig,” and “For health and safety reasons, the answer on the landfill dig just has to be no.”
The complaint against the party cites section 18 of the Human Rights Code, which states “No person shall publish, broadcast, circulate or publicly display, or cause to be published… any sign, symbol, notice or statement that discriminates or indicates intention to discriminate in respect of an activity or undertaking.”
“The Progressive Conservative party’s decision to run a campaign on its commitment to not search the landfill for the remains… sends a clear message to families and survivors that the Progressive Conservative party is indifferent to such violence,” the claim reads.
“The Progressive Conservative party, along with its leader (former premier Heather Stefanson, who stepped down as party leader Monday), discriminated against Indigenous women, girls, (LGBTTQ+) people and their families based on their ancestry, gender identity, sexual orientation and sex by issuing public statements and signs with language that is demeaning and affronts the dignity of Indigenous women.”
The documents allege the ads stoked racial division and violence throughout the province, and “set a precedent in Manitoba that it will not support searching for any Indigenous person who goes missing.”
Harris said the advertisements were also a personal affront, and offensive to all families of missing and murdered Indigenous people.
“I saw (the ads) every single day and I was forced to stare at (them). It hurt. It’s distressing to, not only blast the families’ grief, but to politicize a national tragedy like that to gain political votes,” she said.
“Where is the accountability, and when is this going to end? It needs to end now.”
“I saw (the ads) every single day and I was forced to stare at (them). It hurt. It’s distressing to, not only blast the families’ grief, but to politicize a national tragedy like that to gain political votes.”–Cambria Harris
After Skibicki was charged with multiple slayings in December 2022, the Winnipeg Police Service said investigators believe the remains of Harris, Myran and Buffalo Woman could be buried at Prairie Green, but it would not be feasible to recover them due to associated health and safety concerns.
An Indigenous-led committee tasked with assessing the feasibility of a search later concluded that a successful search is possible but could take up to three years and cost $184 million, with no guarantee remains will be found.
The committee’s report included possible ways to mitigate health and safety risks associated with the search.
Contois’ partial remains were discovered at Winnipeg’s Brady Road landfill.
The documents argue Manitoba “routinely funds other kinds of dangerous, high-risk work such as mining,” and that similar efforts to recover human remains from landfills have proven successful elsewhere in Canada.
The Manitoba Human Rights Commission is responsible for reviewing the complaint and conducting an investigation, if deemed necessary.
“In order to for the complainants to prove their allegations of discrimination, they are going to have to show the contents of the ads are discriminatory, or are inciting discrimination.” –Allison Fenske
According to the commission website, an investigator will give both parties the opportunity to provide evidence to support their position, and may interview other people who have information relevant to the complaint. The commission also has authority to obtain documentation or evidence related to the complaint.
It typically takes several months for an investigator to be assigned to a complaint and arrange interviews. Most investigations are completed between four and 12 months after the investigator connects with the parties, depending on the complexity of the complaint and legal issues raised.
Anyone accused in a human rights complaint is given 30 days to reply to any allegations outlined, but not required by law to respond.
The commission may dismiss a complaint without investigation if it is not believed to violate the Human Rights Code or the contesting parties reach a settlement. Parties are encouraged to settle through a mediation process overseen by the commission.
Filing the complaints marks the first step in what could be a lengthy and difficult process for everybody involved, said Allison Fenske, clinical counsel at the University of Manitoba’s faculty of law.
If the complaints are referred for an investigation and the parties cannot reach a settlement, there is a possibility the proceedings culminate with a public hearing led by an adjudicator, Fenske said.
“Our government remains committed to searching the landfill and ensuring (missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirited) people and their families are given the dignity and respect that all Manitobans deserve.” –Provincial Spokesperson.
In some cases, an adjudicator may order certain remedies provided in the Human Rights Code. These can include ordering an apology for the discriminatory action, compensating the complainant up to $25,000, mandating human rights training and reviewing or changing policies or practices that facilitated the discrimination.
Based on the commission’s current operating timelines, it could be several years before a hearing occurs, Fenske said.
She described the complaints as a “particularly thorny” to navigate, given the abundant legal protections provided to political freedom of speech.
“In order to for the complainants to prove their allegations of discrimination, they are going to have to show the contents of the ads are discriminatory, or are inciting discrimination,” she told the Free Press.
“If that is established, it will be flipped to the respondent to show they had reasonable cause or bona fide cause for that discrimination… then, ultimately whether or not this is discrimination will be up to the adjudicator.”
Fenske noted that, regardless of whether the commission chooses to pursue to complaints, the action may discourage other political groups from running such advertisements in the future.
“Certainly the fact that a complaint has been filed could inform how a political party strategizes around their particular platforms and the public communications they make,” she said.
If the complaints are tested by an adjudicator in a public hearing, it could set a precedent for how similar accusations are handled in the future, she said.
In a statement to the Free Press, the province — now led by Premier Wab Kinew and the New Democratic Party — reaffirmed its commitment to searching Prairie Green.
“Manitobans elected our government on a message of bringing people across our province together. Our government remains committed to searching the landfill and ensuring (missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirited) people and their families are given the dignity and respect that all Manitobans deserve,” a provincial spokesperson said.
Harris said the landfill search feasibility committee has prepared an updated report detailing safety measures and search plans that will be released publicly by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Wednesday.
The PC party did not respond to requests for comment.