The leaders of four church denominations are urging Manitoba’s political leaders to search Prairie Green landfill just outside the city of Winnipeg for the remains of two tragically murdered indigenous women, Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran.
One of these leaders recently claimed anti-aboriginal racism explained the province’s refusal to support such an effort.
“I think sometimes we have a preference for people who are white in this country and we tend to ignore people who are Indigenous,” said Susan Johnson, national bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.
“I can’t imagine that if there were white people in the landfill that we wouldn’t be searching for them. So I think in many ways, this is racist and it certainly does not work in terms of our commitment to reconciliation.”
Calls for a search of Prairie Green have been growing since Premier Heather Stefanson said she would not fund a complex undertaking that could take up to three years and cost up to $184 million, citing dangers to searchers as highlighted in a feasibility report conducted by outside parties.
In an August 29 email, Stefanson said as premier, “As much as I would like to say yes to everything, sometimes the answer has to be no.”
While her statement said, “We can all agree that this is a tragic situation,” she once again cited “significant human health risks that cannot be ignored.”
What she failed to mention is that the chance of finding any human remains based on a scientifically flawed and self-serving feasibility study is nearly zero and that a drawn out search could compromise the conviction of Jeremy Skibicki, the man charged with the first degree murder of the women.
According to their media advisory, the female leaders of four church denominations expressed no concern about these trifles, instead promising to “join the voices of supporters” at two sites on September 5 to urge Manitoba’s political leaders to support searching the garbage dump.
Representing the United, Presbyterian, Evangelical Lutheran, and Anglican churches, these leaders promised to visit Camp Morgan, a small, and informal tent ground at the Brady Road landfill outside Winnipeg where the remains of another indigenous woman were found last year, “in solidarity with those calling for justice and an end to the violence against Indigenous women, children, and Two-Spirit people.”
The same charge of racism has been made repeatedly by family members and supporters of the two murdered women.
This is indeed a grave charge in a tolerant country like Canada and so requires sound evidence to be taken seriously.
To be sure, racism has been an accusation bandied about in some form or the other since first contact between European and indigenous people in the early 16th century, the initial phase of perhaps the most benign example of colonialism the world has ever known.
Consumed by a desire to ensure a proper funeral for their mothers and led by the mantra “we are not garbage,” it is nonetheless easy to be sympathetic to the pleas of family members and their supporters.
Still, their cries of racism, if this means hating or disparaging aboriginals as a people, need to be rejected.
This specious charge is based on the accusation that not searching “would send a dark message that Canada’s governments condone the act of disposing of indigenous women in landfills,” according to Cathy Merrick, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
One indigenous writer even called the government’s decision “the empowerment of racist ideology and behaviour.”
Such inflammatory rhetoric has no credibility because there are also thousands of missing white Canadians buried across the land and overseas whose remains are unknown or forgotten.
A prime example is the tragic story of the “British Home Children,” some 100,000 offspring of destitute parents sent to Canada between 1869 and 1948 to work as indentured servants for farm families in rural areas, an occurrence few people have ever heard of. Many, perhaps most, children were sent to Canada without their parents’ consent and lived in often terrible conditions, sometimes including physical or sexual abuse. Their last humiliation was to be buried in unmarked plots, some of which have only recently and privately been commemorated.
Even worse is the fate of tens of thousands of unknown, unmarked, or poorly maintained graves containing the remains of Canadian soldiers of multiple races and ethnicities who lost their lives in two world wars, and today lie anonymous and alone in Canada and around the world despite having paid the ultimate price for their country.
Moreover, if there is systemic anti-indigenous racism, it is not directed at individuals or groups but at a politico-legal system that has granted aboriginals special constitutional and allied rights and privileges denied other Canadians, reinforced by a constant and financially exorbitant call for reparations masquerading as “reconciliation” rarely offered to any other disadvantaged national group or category of people.
Playing the race card to explain the treatment of indigenous people also underpins the more recent accusation of aboriginal genocide, a fallacious charge manufactured about 30 years ago among fringe members of the Indian Industry, the two concepts now joined at the hip in the politics of searching for the remains of these two women.
This is because the genocide slur only gained traction following its use in the June 2019 Final Report of the government-sponsored and funded National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls. The report minced no words when it claimed there exists in Canada – note the present tense – “a race-based genocide of Indigenous Peoples…empowered by colonial structures…leading directly to the current increased rates of violence, death, and suicide in Indigenous populations.”
The Final Report declares that its use of “genocide,” which occurs no fewer than 72 times in its first volume alone, is in keeping with the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
None of the UN Convention’s features apply to the random murder or disappearance of 1,200 or so indigenous women and girls since 1980. The serendipitous murders of indigenous females by numerous unconnected individuals acting on their own, were certainly not “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part” a particular racial or ethnic group through the coordinated efforts of some other racial or ethnic group — the overarching ground for identifying a genocide.
This is not to deny that violence, including homicide, is disproportionately committed against indigenous women. Statistics Canada data between 2011 and 2021 show that of all 1,125 gender-related homicides of women and girls, 21% of victims were Indigenous, despite comprising only 5% of the Canadian female population in 2021. In 2021, the rate of gender-related homicide of Indigenous victims was more than triple that of gender-related homicides of women and girls overall (1.72 versus 0.54 per 100,000 women and girls).
This is surely a horrific tragedy but like the murder of non-indigenous women, few of these heinous crimes appear to be racially or ethnically motivated. This is because RCMP data for the period between 1980 and 2012 says up to 92% of “female homicide victims generally know the person who kills them – more than 90% had a previous relationship with them. This is true for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal female victims.” This shows that intra-racial murders are much more common than inter-racial ones.
Indigenous activists and their supporters calling for a search of the landfill should also be advised that the Holocaust, the genocide of genocides that saw the carefully planned slaughter of some six million Jews by the Nazis before and during the Second World War, resulted in the recovery of the names of several million victims, few or none associated with specific human skeletons or other remains. Since 1954, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem (“A Memorial and a Name”), has been working to recover the names of all the victims, and to date has managed to identify some 4.7 million.
“Every name is very important to us,” says Dr. Alexander Avram, director of Yad Vashem’s Hall of Names and the Central Database of Shoah [Holocaust] Victims’ Names.
“Every new name we can add to our database is a victory against the Nazis, against the intent of the Nazis to wipe out the Jewish people. Every new name is a small victory against oblivion.”
Still, 69 years later, more than a million unidentified victims disappeared without a trace. No one has ever called this absence of evidence or linkage to individual remains racist or an example of Holocaust denial.
Oblivious to such history, Bishop Johnson hopes adding the church voices to the call for a landfill search will prompt the province to reconsider its stance. “We’re taking reconciliation seriously, so I hope they’ll be able to listen. I hope they’ll be able to change their minds,” she argued.
As heartfelt as the bishop’s efforts might be, orthodox theologians could easily see them as a repudiation of Christ’s stern admonition recorded in Matthew 22:21: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” What this means is Christians are not only allowed but commanded to obey the authority of the state because such authority is ordained by God to protect the lives and welfare of its citizens.
Whether grounded in Christian ideology or not, if rational and evidence-based truth-telling is taken seriously, this would require the Manitoba government to stand firm on its decision despite a flood of emotion and race-based virtue signaling urging it to reverse course.
Hymie Rubenstein is editor of REAL Indigenous Report and a retired professor of anthropology, the University of Manitoba