First Nation members send silent message in support of landfill search during Manitoba PC leader's visit
St. Theresa Point members wore red in support of MMIWG and search during Heather Stefanson's campaign stop
A year and a half on, there's still no sign of Ashlee Shingoose.
The pain of that uncertainty was written on the face of her father, Albert Shingoose, when Progressive Conservative Leader Heather Stefanson leaned in to shake his hand during a campaign visit last week in St. Theresa Point First Nation.
"I am very, very … down, feeling low, feeling lost without my daughter," who was last seen in March 2022 in downtown Winnipeg, said Albert.
He had a message for Stefanson when she visited the northeastern Manitoba First Nation.
"Search the landfill, search the landfill! I said that loud and clear for her," he told CBC News.
Those calls were also on display at St. Theresa First Nation School, where hundreds of students took part in a silent statement by wearing red or holding up red signs.
Those calls have been repeated in the weeks since Stefanson's PC government, which is now seeking a third consecutive term, refused to support a search of the Prairie Green landfill.
Police believe the remains of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran — two First Nations women suspected to have been victims of an alleged serial killer — are in the landfill, north of Winnipeg.
Stefanson has cited potential risks to workers in denying to support a search.
Roy Mason, the school's vice-principal, says he didn't necessarily want to make the search into a political issue during the PC leader's visit, but acknowledges there was a collective desire to send a message.
"When we learned [Stefanson] was going to visit, we wanted to show support to have the landfill searched," he said. "[It] gave us an opportunity to participate."
Tanya Dawn McDougall, who works as a mental health advocate at the school, let Mason and other school administrators know of plans for a silent statement — not a protest or rally — to be made in a respectful way.
Mason was supportive of the move and the school encouraged families to wear red to school that day.
"Quite honestly, I didn't want a politician coming into my community thinking that we're totally oblivious to her stance on the issue," said McDougall.
'This is about being human,' not politics
With McDougall at his side, Albert Shingoose broke down in tears when he was introduced to Stefanson during her tour as a man whose daughter is missing. The PC camp posted a photo of the emotional moment to Stefanson's X (formerly Twitter) account, touting the visit.
McDougall felt the lack of acknowledgment that people were making a statement misrepresented the experience of the visit.
"The fact she posted that, I just had to shake my head," said McDougall. "This is not about politics. This is about being human."
Keewatinook candidate Michael Birch and I have taken great value from Chiefs, elders, youth, and community members of St. Theresa Point, Wasagamack, and Garden Hill First Nations who engaged us in important conversations—voicing thoughts and concerns unique to these remote… <a href="https://t.co/YI9HxHSvZt">pic.twitter.com/YI9HxHSvZt</a>—@HStefansonMB
Stefanson said she visited St. Theresa Point to listen.
Her campaign declined to say what was said between her and Shingoose or any other community members, though she acknowledged the topic of a landfill search did come up.
"While I respect that not everyone agrees with my position, my stance remains firm: that for health and safety reasons, the answer just has to be no," she said in a statement on Wednesday.
WATCH | Stefanson outlines reason for not searching in July:
Frank Deer, the associate dean of Indigenous education at the University of Manitoba, said the search is an election issue for him and others he knows.
He wrote an article in the publication The Conversation last week outlining why he thinks there is a moral argument for a search.
"They'll never get their loved ones back, but if we can address their trauma now and in doing that better the relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people ... that would be a good journey," he said.
"I'm not at all surprised that some in the Indigenous community and outside that community are very concerned ... with the stance that the government has taken."
A feasibility study released earlier this year suggested the search could be done, with safety measures in place, at an estimated cost of $84 million to $184 million.
The Manitoba Liberals have committed to funding half of the costs associated with searching Prairie Green if elected in the Oct. 3 vote, with an initial commitment of $42 million.
"This has been turned into a political football and the PCs are using it as a wedge issue," party leader Dougald Lamont said on Monday.
Earlier this week, Kinew said his party would "work with the families to have a good-faith effort — we definitely need to try," but added that "of course, priority No. 1 is going to be to fix the health-care system."
One political expert says voters don't necessarily have a clear cut difference in position between the PCs and the NDP on the issue, because Kinew hasn't made an outright commitment to search "at any and all costs."
WATCH | Kinew outlines position on landfill search in June:
Kinew's stance, like Stefanson's, is the product of political calculation, said Paul Thomas, a professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba.
"This was a concrete example of his promise to govern on behalf of all Manitobans," said Thomas. "He knows better than most people that the Indigenous community is not a monolithic group which has one shared viewpoint."
Thomas said big issues — cost of living, health care and the economy — are top of mind for most, and some voters "believe money would be better used on programs, services to prevent violence against women," than on a landfill search.
St. Theresa Point First Nation Chief Elvin Flett says he welcomed Stefanson and Keewatinook PC candidate Michael Birch to the community, but worries the issues of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and of a landfill search, are being lost in the election.
Flett also said there are so many "insurmountable" social challenges in his community that they dominated conversations with Stefanson and Birch.
"The quality of life in our community and the lack of resources ... that was the main thing we brought forward," said Flett.
"We're caught in welfare subsistence, we're caught in a bottleneck health-care system," he said.
But "I'm not putting the issue of missing people down," he added. "As a matter of fact, it's right up there with issues that I just mentioned."