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Mounds and memories, landfills and lost lives

A call for a Canadian national memorial to missing and murdered Indigenous women

Canadian PoliticsIndigenous PoliticsEducation

Mural honouring missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls on the main road into the Brady Road landfill, just outside of Winnipeg. A blockade went up on the road after the province refused to fund a search of Prairie Green landfill, located north of Winnipeg, for the remains of three Indigenous women. Photo courtesy Winnipeg Police Cause Harm/X.

Manitoba’s quandary

The rates of violence perpetrated against Indigenous women in Canada greatly exceeds that for non-Indigenous women. In 2022, a man was charged with the murders of Rebecca Contois, Morgan Harris, Marcedes Myran, and an unidentified individual given the name “Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe” (Buffalo Woman). His modus operandi was to dispose of his victims in garbage bins, from where their remains would unknowingly be transported to and disposed of in landfills. For many people, perhaps even more than the actual brutality of the murders themselves, it was this shocking and cavalier dumping of the bodies that was such a clarion metaphor for the value in which our collective society places upon those who are Indigenous—particularly Indigenous women.

Although Contois’ remains were successfully recovered from a landfill, those of Harris, Myran, and Buffalo Woman are believed to be in a different landfill, called Prairie Green, located outside Winnipeg. Despite calls by many for the landfill to be thoroughly searched and for the remains of the women to be recovered, the Winnipeg Police Service and the provincial government have so far declined to undertake such an operation, citing technical and safety impediments as well as the strong likelihood that such a search would end in failure. Also pertinent is the fact that the three years it would take to complete the task would cost an estimated $83-184 million dollars.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs undertook several feasibility studies, concluding that the search should be conducted. Nevertheless, the official position has remained intransigent. This led to blockades of access to the landfill by protesters, incensed that garbage would continue to be piled atop the remains of the three murdered and missing Indigenous women (MMIW). In March 2024, the federal and provincial governments each promised $20 million to undertake the search, an amount of funding that is still less than half of the low end estimate from the feasibility studies for what a thorough and safe search would cost.

Several academics have voiced opinions in the popular press that the search should continue based on moral grounds and a questioning of the official opposing arguments. An alternative solution to the quandary is that the tens of millions of dollars needed to conduct such a search and recovery operation would be much better used in regenerating the Prairie Green landfill to create a national memorial to MMIW. This would not just be for the three missing women whose lives were tragically cut short, but for the thousands of similar individuals who, to our collective shame, are thought to exist in Canada.

Mounds as memorials

Excepting a limited number of ancient temples and urban structures, the oldest examples of human architecture are tumuli or burial mounds. Invariably, whether the 4800 BCE passage graves of Kerado and Tumiac in Brittany, or the 3500 and 2800 BCE chambered cairns of Maeshowe and Midhowe in the Orkney Islands, the construction of hills above such internment chambers—some of which, like the 4500 BCE Saint-Michael mound in Carnac, can be of truly enormous size—were to denote, celebrate, and above all, to remember an important member of the local Neolithic society. Often these structures were placed in visible locations in the landscape, such as the so-called Maeve’s Cairn, a conical hill constructed in 3000 BCE over a passage tomb situated on the summit of Knocknarea in Ireland.

Burial mounds exist all over the world. The island of Bahrain—ancient Dilmun—is chockablock full of hundreds of such that date between 2200 and 1750 BCE. Closer to Manitoba, and much more recent, is the sacred site of the Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historical Centre along the Rainy River in northwestern Ontario. Located here are more than a dozen burial mounds constructed between 300 BCE to 1100 CE.

Of significance is that Neolithic communities did not lock up their dead and forget about them in the burial mounds. Rather, their spiritual belief system of temporal cyclicity or the “eternal return” was based on regeneration. Burial mounds were frequently visited and constantly reshaped as the early farmers honored the memory of their ancestors. A modern parallel exists in Latin American and Mediterranean countries where families have picnics on the graves of their deceased relatives.

Maeve’s Cairn on the summit of the Neolithic holy mountain of Knocknarea, Sligo, Ireland. Photo by Robert France.

Mounds as history

The way in which we regard the worthiness and therefore value of our waste products, be they objects or landscapes, is relative. Throughout the Canadian High Arctic it is possible to find the abandoned litter left behind more than a century before by polar explorers, some of whom had suffered considerable hardship and even death. But these items are today not referred to as “garbage;” they are, with the passage of time, referred to as “artifacts” or sometimes even as “relics.” One age’s garbage can therefore become another age’s artifacts, such that the value we impart upon any object or any artificial landscape is often a function of time.

Indeed, the entire discipline of archaeology is based upon this simple truism. Much of what we know about the hunting, foraging, and food processing activities of early humans in North America comes from digs of middens (piles of discarded shells, bones, plant remains, ashes, and domestic waste). On a larger scale, tells are artificial mounds built up over the centuries through the accumulated debris and refuse from past generations who have occupied the same site. Driving through Syria between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the otherwise flat landscape is punctuated by the towering bulk of such tells, “the tombs of long-dead [Mesopotamian] cities.” The point here is that waste products are as much a part of our collective heritage as are the buildings or processes that generated the refuse in the first place. In this regard, the end products of our waste, accumulated today in landfills, can also be regarded as part of our shared heritage.

Mounds as sites of ritual

The flat prairie of southern Manitoba is a consequence of its geological history of lying beneath the ancient Western Interior Seaway, and much later, glacial Lake Agassiz. Occasionally, however, little bumps, termed “eminences,” rise above the otherwise monotony of the great northern plains. Such locations held special significance for the original Indigenous inhabitants. Elsewhere in North America, such as along the historic breadth of the Mississippi Valley, native peoples constructed enormous mounds, such as Watson Brake (3500 BCE) and Poverty Point (1700 BCE) in Louisiana, and Monk’s Mound/Cahokia (900 CE) in Illinois, which towered over the riparian floodplain. These mounds are thought to have been used for a variety of ceremonial purposes related to spirituality and tribal interactions. The significant point is that artificial mounds therefore have a long association as places of importance for the meeting and intermingling of the early inhabitants of the continent.

Landfills as parks

In an important article in which she challenges us to alter our prejudicial views about landfills, anthropologist Robin Nagle writes that such places unite objects as well as citizens. In Winnipeg, for example, there are few locations of sufficient elevation and gradient to enable tobogganing or downhill skiing. Besides the banks of the rivers that traversed the city, the only other option is a former landfill in the northwest corner of the city. Here, the onetime Central Dump on Saskatchewan Avenue has been capped and regenerated as a recreational site, becoming today’s Westview Park. In fact, there is a growing, worldwide movement to repurpose and regenerate former landfills as public parks, as for example, Byxbee Park in Palo Alto, California and the three examples introduced below.

Danehy Park in North Cambridge, Massachusetts, is one of the earliest such success stories. Following closure in the early 1970s, the land lay derelict for two decades before it was regenerated as a 20-hectare recreational facility. Today, the site contains playing fields, picnic areas, art installations, a splash pad, wetlands created for stormwater management, as well as numerous paths, including one that is composed of recycled glass in keeping with the park’s theme of reusing waste. Dozens of residents from the neighbourhood once gathered on the summit of the regenerated landfill to watch a lunar eclipse. Children ran up and down the slopes, some adults took turns watching the astronomical event through high-powered telescopes set up by amateur stargazers while others lounged in their camp chairs sipping drinks. As the full moon disappeared and was then reborn, it was easy to imagine being a participant in some sort of ancient community ritual.

Venice is infamously overwhelmed by tourists. One place of refuge for the increasingly diminishing residents of the lagoon city is Parco San Giuliano, a former landfill for industrial sludge and urban waste that is located just across the bridge on the mainland in Mestre. Here locals attend outdoor concerts, have picnics in large areas of greenspace, buy refreshments and snacks at kiosks, play field sports, and traverse a network of trails and canals, all surrounded by natural areas harbouring the highest biodiversity in the region and within site of the historic city of Venice itself.

In 2005 and 2007, an international group of landscape scientists, engineers, architects, and artists took part in a design charrette to envision the future of the former Hiriya landfill near Tel Aviv. With an area of more than eight hundred hectares, the final park is destined to become one of the largest transformations of a waste landscape into a public space. And like so many things concerning Israel, there are elements of the project which are controversial; not the least of which is the naming of the park after the polarizing figure of Ariel Sharon, a remarkable act of insensitivity given that the original landfill and now park is located on the site of a former Palestinian village that was erased during the 1948 war. This is a reminder that the very location chosen for where a landfill is situated in a landscape is itself a reflection of what society pejoratively considers as wasted space.

Menin Gate memorial to the “missing,” Ypres, Belgium. Photo courtesy Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Landfills as ossuaries

The complete length of the Western Front is a memorial landscape of “wastage.” For many, as sorrowful as it is to see the thousands of crosses and headstones in the hundreds of cemeteries, it is the famous cenotaphs to the “missing,” those whose remains were never found, such as the Thiepval and Menin Gate memorials, that are most heartbreaking to behold. The staggering magnitude of the tens of thousands of engraved names of those lost defies comprehension. What then happens when a landfill such as Prairie Green, which contains the missing remains of victims of violence, is regenerated as a park? Sadly, there is a precedent to which to turn for information in this regard.

To understand this, we must return to that infamous morning of September 11, 2001. At that time, the heads of the half dozen landscape architecture firms who had been shortlisted in the competition to design the future park for the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island were being given a tour of the site by personnel from the New York Sanitation Department. All watched in horror as the planes hit and the Twin Towers collapsed. But only the Sanitation Department staff immediately realized what that meant with respect to where the group were presently standing. And so, despite the landfill—visible from space and one of the largest landworks ever built—having been closed earlier that year, it was reopened to receive the millions of tons of rubble from the World Trade Center.

Two months afterwards, at a conference on environmental restoration at Harvard University, the history and future of the Fresh Kills landfill were presented to the public for the first time. Several weeks later, the shortlisted landscape architecture firms were on Staten Island to present their proposed designs. Interestingly, all of these, including the one that would be eventually selected, contained a memorial area as part of their master plans. The reason for this became clear the next day during a private tour of the landfill by the Sanitation Department.

On a distant hilltop of the landfill’s lunar landscape, a constant stream of dump trucks was pouring out the rubble from the World Trade Center. Every few minutes, the eerie silence would be broken by a large bang. These were shotgun blasts to drive away the thousands of seagulls that were swarming over the rubble dump. The reason for this was that despite careful screening, it was impossible to locate all the tiny pieces of human remains of the two thousand people who were pulverized when the Towers came down. And this is exactly what the birds, more effective scavengers, were doing, a fact which the Sanitation Department did not wish the public to know about at the time.

Fresh Kills (“kill” is the Dutch word for “creek”) is therefore not only the world’s largest garbage dump; it is history’s largest tumulus or burial mound. And therefore, its very nature challenges us about how we regard human waste. Most of the public, ignorant of the uncomfortable fact of the unrecovered body bits, continued to pejoratively refer to the terrorists who had perpetrated the act as being the lowest of the low, or in other words, “garbage.” But how is that word compromised with learning that the remains of two thousand New Yorkers are buried in a landfill surrounded by the discarded belongings of their own material lives—in addition to, of course, the unrecovered remains of the very individuals who had murdered them? What truly does it mean to label something as “trash”? How do you design a park for that? And therein lay the great challenge for all the shortlisted landscape architecture firms, and the reason that they all included some form of memorial in their proposed master plans. Canada can learn from this somber precedent.

Fresh Kills, through being both a museum containing the material relations of everyday life as well as being a burial ground, mixes the sacred with the profane. There was initial outrage when New Yorkers learned that the remains of their loved ones would be intermingled with waste. Even the idea of a memorial was abhorrent to some. Others, as Nagle recounts, were of different mind. One such, was Staten Island’s civil engineer, who stated that “This section of landfill is scheduled, as per the law, for final closure. In simple terms, closure involves first placing down clean soil, followed next by an impermeable barrier, to be then all covered with another thick layer of clean soil. Thus, what was enacted to protect the environment is now very relevant in protecting and respecting the final resting place of so many of our dead. Fresh Kills has now become a part of the landscapes of every American.” In short, and as Nagle argues, the site has become a new public commons.

View of Freshkills Park in 2010. Once the world’s largest garbage dump, the area has been transformed into a bucolic landscape of rolling meadows and grassy fields. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Creating the National Monument for Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women

Given that the Prairie Green landfill in Manitoba likely contains the remains of the three Indigenous women—their names reiterated again here to bear them witness are Morgan Harris, Marcedes Myran, and Buffalo Woman—it is immensely sad to acknowledge the harsh reality that other landfills across Canada almost certainly also contain the remains of some of the thousands of other Indigenous women who have likewise gone “missing.” The estimated $83-184 million it would take to rigorously search the landfill and recover the bodies—if such is even logistically and safely possible, something that is highly questionable—would be much more profitably spent on creating a national monument to all MMIW. There are certainly landscape architecture firms affiliated with environmental engineering companies who are more than capable of undertaking such a worthy endeavor, working in close partnership, of course, with Indigenous artists and healers.

The success of landfills regenerated as public parks depends on the thoughtful, and especially in this case just as for Fresh Kills, on the sensitive integration of different programmatic elements in the final master plan. Sacred elements would first and foremost be some form of central memorial, possibly representing the different treaty territories across the country; and secondly, an Indigenous healing centre. Profane elements could include a recreational area as well as a restored nature park. The possibilities are limited only by our imagination. Ultimate success for such an undertaking depends on recognizing, acknowledging, and integrating those precedents from the past outlined above: (1) that artificial mounds are sites of community history and ritual, and (2) that landfill mounds can find new life as public places of reverence and recreation. Critical will be the need to create a living landscape rather than merely a moribund monument. As landscape artist Mierle Ukeles states in reference to Fresh Kills, but which equally applies to Prairie Green: “[The resulting regenerated site] must become a place that returns identity to, no strips identity from, each perished person … The site must become a double place: the unnamed healed and the named re-named.”

There is at least one useful precedent that offers inspiration for transforming Prairie Green landfill from being a location of repulsion into a site of healing for Indigenous peoples. This is the landscape regenerated from the town waste of Arcata, California. Here, domestic wastewater, following primary and secondary treatment, is sent to a system of wetlands purposely constructed to provide final polishing before the effluent is discharged into the ocean. The wetlands comprise the Arcata Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary, a place of recreational trails popular with birders from across the United States. Overlooking the wetlands is a former landfill, Mount Trashmore, that is an integral part of the park. Nearby, on a formerly degraded brownfield, is the Potawot Health Village, run by the United Indian Health Services. The site includes a health clinic surrounded by the Ku’-Wa-Da-Wilth Restoration Area, meaning “comes back to life” in the local tribal language. The regenerated landscape includes restored wetlands, nature trails, and a community garden, and hosts a variety of cultural programs about therapeutic foods and craft making. The project is successful in its combined use of traditional knowledge and contemporary landscape restoration techniques to provide healing for both the outside and inside worlds.

Coming together in regenerated landfill commons

Restoration design challenges the forced dichotomy through which we conceive of physical and human natures. Ecological and human wellbeing are tightly interrelated, with both the outer and inner landscapes in need of healing. Healing the wounds of both the earth and those of the heart can be addressed through establishing a national monument to MMIW on the site of the Prairie Green landfill. The Fresh Kills landfill-cum-ossuary offers lessons should Canada decide to act upon this suggestion.

Nagle provocatively entitled her chapter “To Love a Landfill,” and encouraged us to stop dismissing such landscapes as blights. Her concluding words offer insight into the sort of mindset needed for how to approach a national memorial to MMIW:

No one can heal land that has been claimed for a landfill; Fresh Kills will never again be the salt marsh that it was before. No one can heal a city, any city, wounded like New York was on September 11, 2001, nor can families who lost loved ones heal to the wholeness they knew before the violence that ripped them asunder.
We can, however, acknowledge what landfills allow us and see them for the futures they help create, not just for the pasts in which they were difficult spaces. When they are closed, we have the chance to bring our most thoughtful efforts to their future, as the restoration team will demonstrate, by not forgetting what they are—what shapes the hills where children can gambol, runners can sweat, picknickers can ward off ants, aching citizens can mourn—and to make them a welcomed commons, not just a necessary one.

Robert France, a former resident of Manitoba, was awarded its top civilian honor in 1992. Later, while a professor at Harvard University, and as mentioned in this article, he participated in design discussions about public parks intended for the Hiriya and Fresh Kills landfills following their closure. Now at Dalhousie University, he has Canadian government funding to examine the success of parks regenerated from former mine sites.


Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

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