Critical Kvetching: Sophia Hershfield provides a Jewish perspective on the landfill blockade in Winnipeg

A meme widely shared by those urging a search of the landfills in Winnipeg.

Critical Kvetching is a column in which York University graduate student Sophia Hershfield provides her take on the Jewish side of politics in Canada.

Among the highest mitzvot in Judaism is respecting the dead, as a gesture of kindness to someone who will never be able to repay you. When a Jewish person dies, they must be guarded from the moment of death to the moment of burial—which should be done as soon as possible.

The body is carefully prepared and cleaned through a process of ritual purification called taharah. Just as we enter the world clean and pure, we must also leave the world clean and pure.

Imagine for a moment that there were multiple Jewish bodies, not under the loving care of their community, but rather left in a landfill, amongst a city’s piles of waste. And to make matters worse, the municipal government, provincial government, and the police have the power to help, but are choosing to do nothing.

As a community would be up in arms. We’d be howling—and rightfully so—about this injustice, and invoking the Jewish value to respect the dead as a justification to search the landfill.

While outside of this thought experiment, the Jewish community is rightfully upset about the way that Toronto’s police services have bungled the mystery of the murdered philanthropists Honey and Barry Sherman.

Just one high profile case of murdered Jews is enough for us to seek justice. If there was an epidemic, and the prospect of credible evidence to be found, we would say that no expense is too great to right this wrong. And that the bare minimum would be to search the landfill, to make sure that our loved ones final resting place is not in a pile of garbage.

For the Indigenous community in Winnipeg, the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women are fighting what is seemingly an uphill battle to bring justice to their loved ones. And it’s high time that our community showed up to fight with them.

This past week, protesters have been blocking the main entrance to the Brady Landfill. This happened after the province of Manitoba announced that they would not investigate Prairie Green Landfill, just outside Winnipeg, despite the police admitting that it is the likely location of the remains of two missing Indigenous women: Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran are both suspected victims of a serial killer who has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder of Indigenous women in Winnipeg.

Although a federally funded survey determined that a search of the site was possible Manitoba premier Heather Stefanson has decided that closure for victim’s families is not worth the time, money, and risk.

The city took demonstrators to court in filing an injunction to try to force them out of the blockade. In response to this move by the city, the protest has set up a second camp outside the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

This is not the first, or the last, incident of the government and its institutions mistreating Indigenous people both in life and in death.

This current protest is a response to a decades-long, country-wide, history of police mishandling cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and Two Spirit. As prime minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged in 2019, the ongoing violence against Indigenous people, and the continued government apathy in response, amounts to genocide. Indigenous women are much more likely to be victims of homicide, and for their deaths to remain unsolved.

APTN reporting found that Indigenous women made up 65 percent of homicide victims in Winnipeg from 2018-2022. Even more shocking, in every unsolved local homicide in that same five-year span, the victim was an Indigenous woman.  

Jewish law, Jewish tradition, and Jewish values all teach us the importance of respect for the dead. But time and time again, across Canada, vulnerable victims are neglected in life and in death, and mourning families are denied the dignity to properly grieve.

Can we accept that a certain class of people is disposable enough that searching for their remains—with a credible prospect of evidence to be found—is just too expensive? Just on the face of it, this flies in the face of every tenet of Jewish law, and everything we believe about the sanctity of life.

While this current situation is happening in Winnipeg, it’s part of a larger reckoning all Canadians are facing about our complicity in treating Indigenous people, and Indigenous women especially, as disposable—or worse. Every Canadian should be standing up to say that what’s happening in Winnipeg is unacceptable.

Sophia Hershfield can be reached at [email protected] for your response to Critical Kvetching.