Advocates, police adopt Buffalo Woman name for unknown victim of alleged serial killer
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When a woman believed to be a victim of an alleged Winnipeg serial killer couldn’t yet be identified, Indigenous leadership across the province and beyond gathered in consultation.
They decided she would be known — in their conversations, protests, prayers and hearts — as Buffalo Woman (mashkode bizhiki’ikwe in Ojibwa), until her true name is confirmed.
Now, city police say they will follow that lead.
“As a sign of respect and at the request of community advocates, knowledge keepers, elders and leadership, the Winnipeg Police Service will refer to the fourth victim, yet to be identified, as Buffalo Woman,” the WPS said in a news release Monday.
The woman is one of four — along with Rebecca Contois, 24, Morgan Beatrice Harris, 39, and Marcedes Myran, 26 — police believe were killed by Jeremy Skibicki.
Skibicki, 35, faces four charges of first-degree murder.
On Monday, the WPS said it is meeting with family and community related to the case, and won’t provide any further comment about the decision to use the Buffalo Woman name until after those meetings.
The name given is a sign of recognition the slain woman isn’t just a statistic, Long Plain First Nation Chief Kyra Wilson said.
“You’re acknowledging the life and the spirit of that woman, and whether or not that woman is living here in the physical world, maybe she is passed on and now living in the spirit world, and that’s where the cultural understandings and beliefs come into play,” Wilson said Monday.
“When we look at this woman, she had a name, she had a family, she had a community. And instead of calling her unknown or Jane Doe, the community came together… to come up with a name for this young woman that is still missing.”
Wilson said the past five days have rocked Long Plain, the home First Nation of Harris and Myran.
“I really felt… obligated to figure out: why is it two women from Long Plain? What does that mean for our community? Does that mean that we need more support and more services available for families?” said Wilson, who is related to one of the victims.
In Long Plain, some 95 kilometres west of Winnipeg, mental health workers have been creating spaces for people to grieve. A four-day sacred fire, set to help the victims on their journey out of the physical realm, has burned.
Wilson is now taking her community’s pain with her to Ottawa, where she is meeting federal leadership with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
The chief said eyes across Canada are on Long Plain. Wilson wants to use the community’s voice to call out what she sees as inaction in providing the support needed to help prevent violence against Indigenous women and girls.
“We’ve had advocates speak to this for years and years, and still nothing is being done,” she said.
“When we look at the federal government, they need to listen to what we are saying as Indigenous communities, Indigenous families, Indigenous leadership — that something needs to be done and we’re not going to stay quiet any longer.
Meantime, Wilson said some are still hurt by the WPS decision to not expand a search of Winnipeg’s Brady Road landfill for potential victims’ remains.
Contois’s partial remains were found near a Winnipeg apartment building May 16; her further remains were later found at the landfill.
No remains have yet been found of the other three women.
On Dec. 2, WPS Chief Danny Smyth said it was likely their remains were in the landfill. However, a full-scale search would be unfeasible, considering the landfill’s size, continuous operation and the time that has passed, he said.
“If they don’t feel like they have enough people or enough workers or whatever the issue might be, there are a lot of grassroots people that would be willing to do that work,” Wilson countered Monday.
“Our communities would come together to help with the search of the landfill… But we need to get that support from the Winnipeg police.”
Buffalo Woman is believed to be the first of the four women killed, dying on or around March 15. Police have released photos of a jacket similar to the one she was believed to be wearing, a reversible “Baby Phat” jacket with a fur-lined hood.
Police did not say Monday if the photos have resulted in any tips.
“Although our office works closely with the homicide unit, we are not privy to all details of the case. It is an ongoing investigation and we will provide details to the public as it is given to us,” a WPS spokesperson said.
— with files from Erik Pindera
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.