By Frank Deer, Professor, Associate Dean, and Canada Research Chair, Faculty of Education, University of Manitoba
In May 2022, Winnipeg resident Jeremy Skibicki was arrested and charged with the murder of 24-year-old Rebecca Contois.
By the end of that year, Skibicki would be charged with the murder of three other women: Morgan Harris, Mercedes Myran and an unidentified woman who has been given the name Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe by the Indigenous community.
Harris, Myran and Contois were First Nations women. It is believed that Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe was also Indigenous. Their deaths are tragic additions to the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls crisis in our in country. Statistics consistently show that rates of violence against Métis, Inuit and First Nations women and girls are much higher than for non-Indigenous women and girls in Canada.
In June 2022, Winnipeg police investigators recovered the remains of Contois, of the Crane River First Nation, at the Brady Road landfill.. They believe the remains of Harris and Myran, of the Long Plain First Nation, are also in a landfill in a section of the Prairie Green site, just outside Winnipeg. However, Winnipeg police have stated they won’t search the landfill, citing feasibility and a low possibility of recovery..
Soon after police announced their decision, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs initiated a feasibility study for the search. The report, which involved many experts, estimated the search would take three years and cost $184 million. Most importantly, experts indicated that a search would be viable.
But Manitoba’s provincial government, led by Premier Heather Stefanson, declined to support a search. She cited health and safety risks for those involved.
However, many in the public strongly suspect the provincial government’s reasons [have more to do with budgets than safety] and they are increasingly voicing their opposition to the refusal to support a search of the Prairie Green landfill.
As an Onkwehonwe (Native) scholar who studies morality and ethics in communal and societal contexts, the callous and immoral position of the Stefanson government is alarmingly familiar. I experienced the Oka crisis in the summer of 1990 in my home community of Kahnawake and witnessed first-hand the trauma our community experienced as a result of immoral government action.
Most arguments in favour of searching the landfill for Harris, Myran and Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe focus on the well-being of their families and their communities.
One of the results of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been a more expansive view of human well-being, including mental health and the impact of structural inequalities. This has heightened public awareness of government responsibilities to the population’s holistic health. From this, new questions about the moral responsibilities of government have emerged.
In this context, what moral principles should guide the Manitoba government in its decision to search the Prairie Green Landfill for these Indigenous women?
A fundamental principle in democratic governance in Canada is the expectation that those elected to public office will exercise economic, political and administrative authority in a manner that is responsive to those who are governed.
It is in the exercise of such authority that moral questions must be considered.
A moral responsibility to help
Given the prevailing doubt around the provincial government’s refusal to search the landfill, let’s consider a classic allegory offered by renowned moral philosopher Peter Singer at Princeton University.
In this story, you are walking home when you encounter a young person drowning in a muddy pond. To help this individual, you would have to jump in and get your clothing wet and dirty. A decision must be made.
The cost to you to help this person are your expensive clothes and maybe being late for work. Do you help?
Ideally, you would agree that the state of your clothing would be an insignificant issue and that the death of the young person through drowning would be a terrible thing. Acknowledgement of these two issues and the option associated with them ought to govern your decision.
It should be easy to see the parallels between Singer’s allegory and our very real situation with the Indigenous families and communities who have been traumatized by these young women’s murders and, now, retraumatized by the lack of will to recover their remains.
The expense associated with a search is not insignificant and not to be trivialized. However, the current trauma being experienced by the families and the community is significant. [Searching the landfill would help bring emotional closure to a very traumatic situation.
That alone should make the decision to search rather straightforward. It is in the public interest and in the interest of the well-being of the families of these murdered Indigenous women to address this problem through, among other things, a search of the landfill.
Repeated government failures
The failures by government to be responsive to Indigenous communities is a serious issue and one that has continued to cause long-term harm.
The trauma experienced by Indigenous families and communities emerging from the refusal by the Stefanson government to search the Prairie Green landfill for their murdered loved ones is undoubtedly a form of harm that is unnecessary and avoidable.
There should be no moral struggle with the decision to initiate the search of the landfill. Singer wrote this about his famous allegory:
“If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it.”
The ongoing trauma experienced by these families and the community is indeed a “very bad thing.” And the resources necessary to search the landfill do not represent a morally significant sacrifice.
Search the landfill.
Frank Deer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.