OTTAWA — A newly released document shows the head of the RCMP told Ottawa the national police force could offer guidance to the Winnipeg police on searching a landfill for the remains of two First Nations women.
As anger grew over the initial refusal by the Winnipeg police to search the site, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki told federal deputy ministers about some of the ways the Mounties could help — including by sharing their experience searching the pig farm of serial killer Robert Pickton.
"This is in no way a detailed list or plan but it does provide an overview of some of what we can do in this space," Lucki wrote in a Dec. 16 email, obtained by The Canadian Press through the Access to Information Act.
Winnipeg police had initially decided not to search the Prairie Green landfill, a privately run dump outside the city, for the remains of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran, whom they believe to be victims of a serial killer.
Jeremy Skibicki, 35, has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Harris and Myran plus two other women: Rebecca Contois and an unidentified woman whom Indigenous leaders have named Mashkode Bizhiki'ikwe, or Buffalo Woman.
Police had said searching the landfill for the remains of Harris and Myran was not feasible and that the chances of finding them were low, citing the amount of time that had passed as one reason.
Shortly before Lucki sent her email, Indigenous groups in Winnipeg had created their own committee to figure out whether a search was feasible, and called on the federal government to help. The Winnipeg police said on Dec. 14 they would be part of the committee.
On Dec. 7, Winnipeg police chief Danny Smyth told reporters police had not discussed the matter with Ottawa. This week, Winnipeg police spokesperson Kelly Dehn did not say whether the local force asked the RCMP to help and declined to comment, as the matter is before the courts.
The RCMP confirmed Tuesday that Lucki gave the information to the federal government "proactively," as neither the Liberal government nor the Winnipeg police had asked the Mounties to consider how they could help.
The RCMP "compiled information from within the organization in order to be prepared to respond to potential calls for assistance," spokesperson Cpl. Kim Chamberland said in a statement Tuesday.
"At the time, the RCMP in Manitoba had met with community representatives, provincial and municipal officials and Manitoba Indigenous organizations to listen to their concerns."
The daughter of one woman whose remains police suspect are in the landfill said the Winnipeg police should have reached out, "if they felt like they weren't capable of finding these women."
"I wish they would have reached out to the RCMP, the provincial government, federal, municipal — just anyone," Cambria Harris said in an interview Tuesday.
"It seems it comes down to not only what they claim is feasible, but capability."
One of the ways the RCMP said it could help was by offering expertise from its investigation into Pickton, whose pig farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C., became known as the largest crime scene in Canada.
For more than a year, officers and experts scoured the property for women who disappeared from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, eventually finding the remains of several, after hundreds of thousands of DNA samples and exhibits were collected.
"While the search of Pickton's property began more than 20 years ago, active and retired investigators who worked on the project could be made available for consultation by the Winnipeg Police Service," says the document provided to the deputy ministers of public safety and Crown-Indigenous relations.
It added that roughly 100 archeology undergraduate students from Simon Fraser University had assisted with the Pickton investigation, saying "such a program could work with universities/colleges in Manitoba."
Besides Pickton, the document suggested RCMP members who responded to the 1998 Swissair flight crash off the coast of Nova Scotia, where 229 people died, could be made available.
As for the site itself, the RCMP said thought should be given to having a bus provide daily transportation "as many inner-city citizens do not have vehicle access."
Cambria Harris says she lacks option to visit as often as she would like.
While drawing comparisons to Pickton, RCMP also cautioned that "health and safety" concerns around the landfill "will be present to a much larger degree" than the farm search, citing bacteria risks from animal remains, as well as asbestos and toxic gases.
It also raised cost considerations.
"Cost for excavation alone will be in the millions of dollars, as all the excavation material (40 feet worth) would need to be trucked off site to be sorted. By comparison, the Pickton site investigation cost $102 million at the time."
"(The) Winnipeg Police Service has not (publicly) released an estimated cost, but do have that figure from expert consultation."
Winnipeg police declined to release or discuss the costing this week.
The Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations says it has not received a cost estimate for a possible search and expects to receive one after the Indigenous-led committee looking into the matter finishes its feasibility report and provides recommendations. The committee includes representation from Winnipeg police and the RCMP.
"At various times, during conversations with various agencies involved, loose comparisons to the efforts deployed in searching the Pickton farm were made, but no precise cost estimates were provided," spokesman Matthew Gutsch said in a statement.
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs is providing oversight of the committee, which Ottawa gave $500,000 to conduct its study.
Last month, Grand Chief Cathy Merrick of the assembly said a search could begin as soon as April, depending on what it concludes.
Harris says the search might take millions, but for Ottawa, "it's pocket change."
"You can't put a price on human life and human remains."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 8, 2023.
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press