Someone told Vernon Mann first, which was a loving thing to do. That day someone from the Indigenous social service agency Ka Ni Kanichihk called to tell him about an awful thing that would soon be in the news: Winnipeg police were searching Brady landfill for the partial remains of 24-year-old Rebecca Contois, who was found murdered last month.
The last time police searched Brady for a body, it was October 2012 and they were searching for Tanya Nepinak, Mann’s former partner and the mother of his two children. So the search for Contois’ remains means that Nepinak’s name too is back in the news, and with that comes the memories of those terrible days.
"It brought back everything, from when we went through it," Mann says. "There are so many similarities with Tanya’s case."
The similarities: a young woman dead and her body feared to be in the landfill, disrespected in ways almost beyond bearing. A suspect in custody and police saying there could be other victims. There were other victims in Nepinak’s case, too: Shawn Lamb pleaded guilty to two counts of manslaughter for killing Carolyn Sinclair and Lorna Blacksmith.
Lamb initially confessed to killing Nepinak, but later recanted. A murder charge in her death was stayed for lack of evidence.
There are differences between the cases. One is that Contois’ family already has some of her. This is an ugly thing to talk about, but it’s true. Some of her remains were found in an apartment on May 16. Even if police find nothing else at Brady landfill, her family has something to bury.
Nepinak’s family never even got that little mercy. They never got anything of her. A feeling, only.
To this day, Mann says, Nepinak has no gravestone. So on her birthday, Oct. 10, or on the anniversary of when she went missing, Sept. 13, he’ll go instead to The Forks to pay his respects at the memorial for missing and murdered Indigenous women. It’s hard to believe she’s been gone 11 years already. It will always be hard because he loved her.
He swipes through the photos of Nepinak he keeps on his Facebook and points out his favourite: a fuzzy image of the two of them sharing a sweet kiss, her hand on his shoulder. That picture must be at least 20 years old, he says. Now, its saved next to photos of their daughter, who looks so much like her mother, and of Nepinak’s missing person flyers.
"I wish it was easier, but I don’t think it ever will be," he says.
The two met by chance a long time ago. They were young and it’s a cute story. He spotted her on Selkirk Avenue one day, and thought she was absolutely gorgeous, so he ran up to ask for her number, which is, let’s be honest, a gutsy thing to do. But sometimes you just get a feeling, and sometimes that feeling is even right.
“I wish it was easier, but I don’t think it ever will be." ‐ Vernon Mann
That time, it was right. From the beginning, Nepinak and Mann "just clicked," he says. They loved being around each other. They were together on-and-off for 16 years and had two children, 25-year-old Joseph and 21-year-old Jasmine. Tanya was the fun parent, Mann says. She loved taking the kids to the park and just being with them. She cared about everyone.
Then came that night in September 2011, when she went out for a pizza and never came home. It wasn’t like her. Everyone who loved her was scared right away: they knew something was wrong. So they went to police and to the media. They tried everything they could think of to bring Nepinak home, and for months, they found nothing.
Flash forward to October 2012. Before police began searching the landfill, her family gathered there with some elders and held a ceremony, just as Contois’ family would do almost a decade later. There was an area Nepinak’s family felt drawn to search, Mann says, and he felt it too. It was as if her presence coalesced in that region.
"It was really emotional," he says. "I cried. I could just feel her."
Police didn’t search in that spot. Mann doesn’t know why not. They searched somewhere else, and they didn’t find her, and by then it had been over a year since she went missing, so it’s also possible that, with the chemical processes that go on in a dump, there wasn’t much left to find. Those few days waiting and hoping, though, were awful.
"Very tough, very tough," Mann says. "And my kids were just small at the time too. You wanted her to be found, but at the same time, just knowing where she is, it’s still hard. Even driving by Brady landfill now, I get a feeling inside almost to the point that I cry every time I go by there. She deserves a lot better than that."
Ten years later, the pain of that search lingers. It’s not only that they didn’t find Nepinak’s body. It’s also a bitter memory, one to which Mann testified publicly when the national MMIWG inquiry came to Winnipeg in 2015. It happened near the beginning of the search, when one police officer came up and said something Mann cannot forget.
"(He) said, ‘I hope you know we’re doing this one search and that’s it, we’re not searching anywhere else,’" Mann recalls. "I was blown away. I had to turn around and walk away. For him to say that, it was like he didn’t care. Like it was a burden to him. It was awful, I couldn’t believe he said that. It always stuck with me."
What kept him going back then, he says, were his kids.
"It was always them," he says. "I had to make sure they were seeing that I was doing everything possible to find their mom."
And there were supporters that helped him get through. Ka Ni Kanichihk staff were among them. So were relatives of other missing and murdered people. There’s a whole network of them. Do most Winnipeggers know this? That the families of the lost and the stolen reach out to each other and create their own constellations of grief, healing and love?
It’s beautiful that such a network exists and terrible that it must.
"Being able to talk to other people about it, that have been through it, that helps lots," Mann says. "Because they can give you insight in how they deal with it."
For instance: on one of the annual walks from Nelson House to Winnipeg in memory of MMIWG2S, Brenda Osborne, whose daughter Claudette Osborne vanished in 2008 and has never been found, inspired Mann to start a journal. The walks, which take about 10 days, always bring up a lot of heavy emotions. Writing all of it out helps, Mann says.
And talking about her, that helps too. Which is why, in a bittersweet way, he was glad when a Free Press writer messaged him to ask if he’d be willing to reflect on what it was like to search for a loved one, in a place where no one should ever be. Because sometimes he worries Nepinak will be forgotten, and she deserves better than that, too.
"It’s good to talk about it," Mann says, in his soft-spoken way. "And it’s nice knowing that people still think of Tanya."
Now, he grapples with a fresh wave of memories, and the fresh sorrow of seeing yet another family going through what his went through. Mann hasn’t met Contois’ family. Maybe someday he will. When asked if there are any words he’d like to share with them, he thinks quietly for a moment, and shakes his head.
He doesn’t know yet what he would tell them, only what he would do.
"I know I’d give them a hug," he says. "It’s an awful thing."
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.