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“Treated like waste”: indigenous feminicides, a hidden tragedy in Canada

A mountain of trash swept by the winds. Below, bodies.

For two years, in central Canada, the remains of Native American women have been languishing in a landfill where a serial killer dumped them after murdering them.

Morgan Harris, 39, Marcedes Myran, 26, and an unidentified young woman: raped, killed, dismembered and thrown in trash in Winnipeg.

Their relatives were unable to bury them, the excavations to find them have still not started. The body of Rebecca Contois, 24, who suffered the same fate, was found in a trash can.

This case is the last significant chapter in a long story of violence against indigenous women in Canada: often targets of murderers, they are poorly protected by the authorities accused of paying little attention to their cases.

Always “updated side by everyone”, says Elle Harris, 19 years old, member of the Long Plain nation, braid and traditional skirt.

Her mother, Morgan, had a messed up life, she says. Years of homelessness after losing custody of his five children due to his drug addiction. “She was taken like that, as if nothing had happened. I would have liked to see her again…”

“Treated like waste”: indigenous feminicides, a hidden tragedy in Canada

Elle Harris, a member of the Long Plain Nation, at the teepee camp set up near the Prairie Green landfill in Winnipeg, April 27, 2024 © AFP – Sebastien ST-JEAN

Near Winnipeg's Prairie Green Landfill, Elle Harris and her family have set up teepees and a sacred fire, red dresses and a banner that asks: “What if it was your daughter?”

In the cold, the snow, the wind, for months, they have been taking turns in this makeshift camp “to be visible”, said the young girl , “to prove that we are not waste”.

But also to get the excavations started. They have been fighting for this for months: by alerting the media, by demonstrating, until a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“Treated like waste”: indigenous feminicides, a hidden tragedy in Canada

The Prairie Green landfill in Winnipeg, Manitoba province, Canada, April 28, 2024 © AFP – Sebastien ST-JEAN

An agreement was finally given after the arrival at the end of 2023 of Wab Kinew at the head of this province of Manitoba, the first indigenous person in the history of the country in this type of position. But as the months passed, the waste accumulated, complicating the research.

It is in the middle of tons of construction rubble that we have to search. An operation which involves “considerable risks”, explain reports from independent experts, in particular due to exposure to toxic products such as asbestos.

That could take years and cost tens of millions of Canadian dollars.

Morgan Harris' family has vowed to stay until his body is removed.

– “Devastating story” –

No stranger to racist diatribes, serial killer Jeremy Skibicki specifically targeted indigenous women met in homeless shelters, prosecutors explained during the trial that began at the end of April. The verdict is expected on July 11.

“Treated like waste”: indigenous feminicides, a hidden tragedy in Canada

Indigenous feminicides in Canada © AFP – Corin FAIFE, Sabrina BLANCHARD

At the time of his arrest, the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations at the time, Marc Miller, recognized that this case was “the legacy of a devastating history which has repercussions today”.

“No one can confidently say this won't happen again and I think that's a shame.”

Aboriginal women make up about a quarter of victims of feminicides in Canada, even though they constitute less than 4% of the female population, according to official figures.

According to these statistics, they are three times more likely to die murdered than non-Indigenous women. The situation is getting worse: in the early 1980s, indigenous women represented only 8% of victims.

“Canada is considered a country that defends human rights “But there is clearly something wrong in this country,” said Hilda Anderson-Pyrz, an activist who has been defending the cause of indigenous women for years.

“Treated like waste”: indigenous feminicides, a hidden tragedy in Canada

Red ribbons in memory of the Indigenous women killed at the Prairie Green landfill in Winnipeg, Manitoba province, on April 29, 2024 in Canada © AFP – Sebastien ST-JEAN

In 2019, after two years of investigation, a national commission went so far as to describe as “genocide” the thousands of murders and disappearances of women members of the First Nations (Dene, Mohawks, Ojibway, Cree and Algonquins…).

Social isolation and marginalization, racism, sexism, cultural prejudice: indigenous women face a disproportionately high level of violence due to “actions and inactions of the State which find their roots in colonialism” and “a presumption of superiority”, concluded the commission.

– “Road of tears” –

Marcedes Myran's young children don't understand “why their mother is in a dump”.

“Treated like waste”: indigenous feminicides, a hidden tragedy in Canada

Donna Bartlett, a member of the Long Plains Nation, has been caring for her granddaughter's children since her disappearance, in Winnipeg, April 29, 2024 in Canada © AFP – Sebastien ST-JEAN

“I don't know what to say to them,” admits their great-grandmother Donna Bartlett, who raises them alone in her small, cluttered house in an outlying neighborhood of Winnipeg.

She was a nice girl, remembers the inexhaustible matriarch about the antics of a child who “liked to make jokes”.

“I just want to bring back a piece of her to have with us,” slips the 66-year-old lady with long dyed red hair and a weathered face. “For white women, they would have looked for discharge straight away, that’s for sure,” she breathes.

It’s against this contempt, this “systemic racism” that Gladys Radek has been fighting for years a little further west on the “Road of Tears”.

Along this strip of lost land in northern British Columbia, the Pacific Coast province, between 40 and 50 women – and a few men – have disappeared since the 1960s.

“Treated like waste”: indigenous feminicides, a hidden tragedy in Canada

The “Road of Tears” near Gitanyow, British Columbia, on May 1, 2024 in Canada © AFP – Sebastien ST-JEAN

This road, which connects Prince Rupert, near Alaska, to Prince George for 725 km, has become the symbol of indigenous femicide, the tip of the iceberg. But a reality still unknown to the vast majority of Canadians.

Lana Derrick, 19 years old, Alishia Germaine, 15 years old, Gloria Moody, 26 years old, Alberta Williams, 24 years old , and so many others: they often have in common that they are young and indigenous.

Many disappeared while hitchhiking or walking home along Highway 16. No community in the region was spared.

“Treated like waste”: indigenous feminicides, a hidden tragedy in Canada

The “road of tears” in Canada © AFP – Corin FAIFE, Laurence SAUBADU, Paz PIZARRO

Everything here is splendid and spectacular: the snow-capped mountains, the immense trees, the meandering Skeena River, the waterfalls, the abundant wildlife – foxes, bears, eagles…

< p>But regularly, the passerby is reminded of the sinister history of the place: on the side of the road, red dresses nailed to posts, messages promising a reward for any clue after a disappearance, aged photos of young girls with a dazzling smile.

– Never elucidated –

Tamara Chipman, who was a member of the Wet'suwet'en nation, was going to Prince Rupert to see friends late in the day when she was last seen hitchhiking on September 21, 2005. She was 22 years old and had a little boy.

“Treated like waste”: indigenous feminicides, a hidden tragedy in Canada

A cross in memory of Alberta Williams, 24 years old on the “road of tears”, near Terrace, British Columbia, April 30, 2024 in Canada © AFP – Sebastien ST-JEAN

Gladys Radek, her aunt, described her as a “feisty young woman who loved speedboats and fishing.” And above all “life”.

In these isolated and poor communities, only connected by this road bordered by forests where telephone networks do not pass and without public transport, many young people are forced to hitchhike to get around. They often come across the many temporary workers who come for the mines, single men, rather well paid.

The case of Tamara Chipman, like the majority of disappearances and murders on this route, has never been clarified.

It is not a question of news items but of a collective drama which the country refuses to confront, believes Gladys Radek, 69 years old with long black hair.

“Treated like waste”: indigenous feminicides, a hidden tragedy in Canada

Gladys Radek, the “voice of families” of the “Route of Tears” since the disappearance of her niece, in Terrace, British Columbia, on April 30, 2024 in Canada © AFP – Sebastien ST-JEAN

In her deep voice, she describes how she began to travel the country to tell the story of all these women with broken destinies, to “be the voice of these families, because they were silenced.”

When his dilapidated van covered with photos of the missing passes through the local villages, he is often stopped. Her fight now takes her outside of Canada to make the fate of these women known.

“I will never stop looking,” says the one who deplores a botched investigation.

– “Not up to the task” –

“When my cousin Lana disappeared, 25 years ago , we had difficulty obtaining support from the police, who did not take the matter seriously,” Wanda Good also testifies. The young woman's father never recovered.

“Treated like waste”: indigenous feminicides, a hidden tragedy in Canada

Elle Harris, a member of the Long Plain Nation, at the teepee camp set up near the Prairie Green landfill in Winnipeg, April 27, 2024 © AFP – Sebastien ST-JEAN

Many families make the same observation: neglected investigations for women who are still stigmatized and often considered only as drug addicts, prostitutes or alcoholics.

They say that they themselves often had to organize the first searches, look for witnesses…

The head of the national police admitted in 2018 during the national investigation that its services “had not been up to par”.

All studies show that trust does not exist between the police and the natives. Bad relations which have historical roots: the police have been the armed wing of the authorities for decades to impose a policy of forced assimilation of the country's first peoples.

At British Columbia police headquarters outside Vancouver, veteran homicide investigator Wayne Clary tries to explain the “Road of Tears.”

“The northern areas are very, very isolated. Some of the activities that these women engage in, not just the indigenous ones, put them at the disposal of men who prey on women,” he says.< /p>

“Treated like waste”: indigenous feminicides, a hidden tragedy in Canada

Elle Harris, a member of the Long Plain Nation, at the teepee camp set up near the Prairie Green landfill in Winnipeg, April 27, 2024 © AFP – Sebastien ST-JEAN

He acknowledges: “In the past, communication may not have existed.” But he refuses the accusation of botched investigations.

Agent Clary is part of the E-Pana unit, created in 2005 more than 30 years after the first murders, whose job is to “determine whether one or more serial killers are responsible for the murders of the young women.”

Eighteen women appear on this unit's list – 13 homicides and five disappearances spanning from 1969 to 2006. No link has been established between the case so far. Investigations remain open but new homicides are not handled by the special unit.

Since the first murders, there has been progress, notes Wanda Good : the police listen more to families, new relay antennas have been installed to secure the road. “We are moving forward but very, very slowly.”

The last homicide, like that of Chelsey Quaw, a young 29-year-old indigenous woman, dates back to last November.

All rights of reproduction and representation reserved. © (2024) Agence France-Presse

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116