Content Warning: This article discusses the ongoing genocide, murders, and violence against Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit people.
It has been a devastating start to December for those living on Treaty 1 territory in Winnipeg. On December 3, the Winnipeg Police Services (WPS) shot and killed a man during a traffic stop. On December 5, an encampment caught fire as houseless people try to stay warm in the cold Winnipeg winter. Luckily no one was injured. On December 7, a street outreach worker from Street Links found a woman lying unresponsive in a pile of blankets in a city bus shelter—later, she would be pronounced dead. These are the outcomes of years of neglectful policy failures at every level, which amount to acts of state violence brought on by the capitalist greed that decides to fund police over life-sustaining resources. Funding low-barrier public housing, for example, would keep people warm and safe.
I write from the position as a white settler, as an abolitionist involved with the grassroots organization Winnipeg Police Cause Harm, and as a community member with ties to Indigenous community groups in the city. Gender self-determination is very close to my heart.
These everyday acts of state violence are occurring amidst the announcement of an identified serial killer in Winnipeg. A serial killer has been charged with the lives of four Indigenous women, Rebecca Contois, Morgan Beatrice Harris, Marcedes Myran, and Buffalo Woman.
This week, representatives of the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS), including police Chief Danny Smyth, announced that they will not be searching for the remains of two of these women, initially thought to be located in the Brady Landfill but later the Prairie Green Landfill.
Head of the forensics unit, Insp. Cam MacKid positions the WPS’ refusal to conduct these searches as an issue of “feasibility,” explaining how the landfill is simply too large and compacted with trash, especially given the timeframe that has passed. “This was certainly beyond the scope of something that we thought was feasible, from a WPS perspective,” he contends.
The claim that the search is not “feasible” for the WPS is specious. It seems that the WPS is attempting to neutralize public outrage about its decision by constructing issues of time and capacity that the search would require, all while sitting on a constantly-inflating $320 million annual budget, which predominantly goes towards the salaries of police.
Yet this summer, remains of Rebecca Contois were discovered in the Brady Landfill. Even more recently, news from last year has also re-circulated regarding the location of remains of Nathaniel Brettell in a Southern Ontario landfill 8 months after his disappearance.
This kind of search is thus not an impossible feat.
The WPS’ decision to not search for the bodies of these women is a deliberate choice – one that exemplifies the institutional lack of protection and the failure to respond to violence against Indigenous women by police institutions across Canada.
The failure to search is a gross act of dehumanization.
In his justification for the WPS’ decision not to search the Prairie Green Landfill, MacKid compares the women’s remains to that of animals: “Is it likely that, even if her remains were found, that they would be discernible from animal remains? It’s a tough question.” Métis lawyer Jean Teillet reminds us in a Tweet of the similarities to the state’s deplorable treatment of Cindy Gladue, whose body was cut up to be presented as evidence before the courts. This dehumanization of Indigenous women, and the failure to afford them basic dignity and respect in life and death, is part of Canada’s ongoing legacy of gendered colonial violence and genocide.
On December 6, 2022, which is the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, Winnipeg MP for City Central Leah Gazan presented before the House of Commons a call to issue a national state of emergency in the context of the genocide of Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit people through violence and murder. Gazan then criticized the WPS’s decision not to search the landfill, called for the city to cease further dumping of trash so that the community can begin to honour the women who lost their lives, and demanded the resources be allocated to undergo the search and to end the genocide.
The crisis of MMIWG2S has long been considered a genocide, and was declared such in 2019 by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in its Final Report. Yet Mi’kmaw lawyer, professor, and activist, Dr. Pamela Palmater has outspokenly criticized the Trudeau government for failing to address the issues identified by the National Inquiry and to implement the calls to justice. Nothing has changed since these calls to justice were published.
The WPS decision to not search the landfill signals that, in 2022, Indigenous women are still not worth searching for.
Time after time, community proves to be the strongest and most effective way of mobilizing in response to injustice and coming together to keep each other safe.
In 2014, when 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was murdered and her body recovered from the Red River, community came together to demand that nothing like this would ever happen again. Fontaine’s murder resulted from a context of systemic institutional neglect at the hands of colonial systems like child welfare in charge of her “care.” The failure to prosecute Fontaine’s murderer echoed the experiences of overlapping institutional racism she experienced in her short life.
A Special Report by the Manitoba Advocate was consequently penned to address institutional failure that were attributed to Fontaine’s murder, and prompted grassroots groups aimed at providing community methods of safety to (re)convene, such as the Bear Clan, the Mama Bear Clan, and the volunteer search organization, Drag the Red.
There is an important tradition of Indigenous-led community gathering to combat injustice, to honor victims and survivors, and to fight to secure the conditions where all can be safe.
On Sunday, December 4, 2022, a community vigil was organized at the Oodena Circle at The Forks to call for the issue of MMIWG2S to be declared a national state of emergency. Elton Fontaine, the brother of Tina Fontaine, spoke about his sister to demand justice and to end the genocide. Eight years later, Elton Fontaine is now joined by dozens of other family members in the vigil to honor their missing and murdered relatives in Winnipeg.
Reflecting on the daily crisis that is MMIWG2S, NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine demands the resources for the social service infrastructure that will protect Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit people. In a December 5 Facebook Post, MB MLA for Point Douglas Bernadette Smith announced that the community is coming together in response to WPS inaction to “bring our women home,” organize a ceremony, and to put an end to genocidal violence.
This demand to “search the landfills” echoes those to “search the sites” and “bring our children home,” which were calls issued by Indigenous communities across Turtle Island in 2021 in response to unmarked graves filled with children who died at residential school.
Community, including Indigenous justice advocate Ryan Beardy, is calling on police chief Danny Smyth to reconsider the WPS’ refusal to search. Long Plain First Nation Chief, Kyra Wilson, and Grand Chief, Cathy Merrick, of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs have recently called for Smyth’s resignation as Chief of police on the basis that his refusal to mandate the WPS search calls into question his commitment to public safety.
The community calls to action have put pressure on the province to intervene, resulting in the pause of operations at the Prairie Green Landfill as of December 8, 2022. Following this announcement, Winnipeg Police Board chair Markus Chambers says he will be meeting with Smyth to discuss the investigation. Community pressure is proving fruitful during this time.
We are guided by the community’s strength and leadership to move forward in this time.
As abolitionists, we are met with complicated questions every day. The role of policing in these contexts is one of them. Such questions arise amidst calls to task police with conducting the searches.
In conversation, I hear abolitionists’ hesitance to explicitly call for the WPS to conduct the search of the landfills and, for the most, part these concerns are valid: concerns that the WPS will use the search as justification for increased funding, that they may use the search as copaganda to construct the imagery of police as good and necessary public servants who are making good relations with Indigenous peoples. As a group of almost entirely settlers, we at the Winnipeg Police Cause Harm are committed to acting in solidarity with Indigenous peoples by challenging these racist and colonial systems and demanding the conditions for self-determination to be possible.
We do not want to perpetuate the myth of police benevolence, nor give the police any excuse to increase police budgets.
At the same time as we demand police defunding, knowing that it is a violent and racist entity that cannot and does not protect us, we must support the self-determination of the families at this time.
There is no reason that community members must be forced to search through trash in a landfill to bring back the bodies of their loved ones. We know there is emotional trauma that comes from the community searching for the remains of their children who were murdered and died at residential schools. The search of the landfill will be no different.
By asking police to conduct the search, we alleviate the emotional trauma from the community who is already going through the crisis of loss that is MMIWG2S.
After all, public servants have healthcare benefits to afford counseling, do they not?
At the end of the day, the police use any excuse they can to call for increased funding. The police are a “greedy institution,” as University of Winnipeg Criminal Justice professor Dr. Kevin Walby and University of Windsor Criminology professor Dr. Randy Lippert term it. The police receive greater funding than any other single institution, whose funding is unrelated to performance evaluations, and find any excuse to justify budget increases at the expense of the funding cuts to our valuable community programs and services.
Although police may very well use this as an opportunity to call for more money, we must remain adamant that police are already equipped with more than enough resources to conduct this search. If not, officers could use volunteer hours to search – but we all know that won’t happen. There is no excuse for the WPS’ refusal to search.
While the state continues to funnel money into the mass incarceration of Indigenous peoples, who make up 75% of those held in provincial custody in Manitoba, somehow there are no resources to aid the search; it is clear that the state enacts punishment, not justice.
If the job of searching the landfills is the one demand that the community has of the WPS, then they ought to do it.
However, this does not mean that we believe policing is a benevolent entity or that policing can resolve structural issues of sexism, colonialism, and racism. Tasking the WPS with searching the landfills and defunding the police do not have to exist in opposition. Both can exist at once.
At the same time, we should not limit ourselves to relying on harmful state institutions to seek justice. Instead, we might demand the resources for a search process that is entirely self-determined by the community.
We support the call to search the Prairie Green Landfill and to allocate the resources necessary to do so. However, we demand that this process is done properly, and that all decisions and funding is in the hands of Indigenous community groups.
We are forced to have the discussion of searching for the remains of multiple murdered Indigneous women in our city’s landfills because of the heinous actions of a individual perpetrator, who does not get the privilege of being named here.
Reports indicate the perpetrators’ history of violence against women and which resulted in prior convictions and a restraining order against an ex-spouse. The perpetrator, now accused of murdering four Indigenous women, must be held accountable. There is no question about that. However, this extreme pattern of violence against Indigenous women is not something that can be resolved by a single conviction.
Beyond individual perpetrators, MMIWG2S is a crisis across Turtle Island - a crisis born out of a context of ongoing genocide and dispossession, the dehumanization of Indigenous peoples, the devaluation and disposability of Indigenous women and Two-Spirit people, and the context of settler state violence.
The very crisis of MMIWG2S is a product of the settler state, to which police play a central role.
Policing has always played a central role in genocide and land theft. From the origins of the RCMP to contain Indigenous peoples on reserves, the role the RCMP played in enforcing residential schools, and to the contemporary surveillance and arrests of land defenders to steal the land, benefit from its resources, and obscure and erase Indigenous sovereignty. This is not an exhaustive list, but mere examples of how policing has always functioned to dispossess.
Police also play a role in MMIWG2S.
We remember the names of Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit people whose lives were lost as a direct result of state violence, like young Tina Fontaine and Eishia Hudson, and whose families have been denied justice at the hands of the settler legal system.
The solution to MMIWG2S does not rest in the conviction of a serial killer through a systemically sexist, racist, and colonial system. The actions of this man is a microcosm of broader structures of violence and genocide. To this, there is no “one” solution.
Our pursuit of justice must be aimed at resolving the conditions that foster and permit such violence to unfold. Justice for Indigenous peoples should be guided by the leadership of Indigenous communities. In Palmater’s view, ending the genocide means enacting an “emergency action plan to address the devastating outcomes of genocidal policies including safety, health, education, housing, water, food, and child and family.”
Defunding the police is a call for community safety.
Rather than funding the police, who have proven time and time again that they exist solely to “serve and protect” private property in the settler colonial state, we demand the funding of public housing, survivor-centric domestic violence supports, community-based programming and services that address harm, and so much more.
Right now, massive police budgets stand in the way of protecting our community.
Government (in)action allows the lives of Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit people to be taken every day, but there is strength in our communities to refuse complacency with systems of injustice.
In closing, if the WPS refuses to conduct the search, the community will respond, as it always has done.
Leon Laidlaw (they/he) is a Ph.D. Candidate at Carleton University, a queer and trans man, a white settler, and a community organizer in Winnipeg.