The murky, fast-moving waters of Winnipeg's Red River are storied and feared – the scene of centuries of aboriginal history but also a major flooding threat with each spring thaw.
But when police divers happened upon a First Nation girl's body as they searched for another corpse last month, adding to the tally of remains found in the river, the sister of a missing aboriginal woman wanted it to become something else: The site of a random search for remains.
"How many more bodies are in there?" said Bernadette Smith, whose sister, Claudette Osborne, went missing from the provincial capital in 2008. "We know it's going to be a challenge, but we have to at least try."
Next week, a team of volunteers will set out on boats to drag the Red River with metal claws and chains – crafted by Ms. Smith's welder husband – in search of bodies, bones and evidence.
The endeavour reflects the frustration among families of aboriginal missing women who wonder whether police are doing enough to find their loved ones. Ms. Smith's own stepmother moved to Winnipeg from the Norway House reserve with the mission of scouring the city for Claudette.
The Drag the Red River group, which has more than 700 members on Facebook and will rely on volunteers for boats and fuel, plans to map out its dredging route at a gathering Sunday at the Alexander Docks, where a vigil was held three weeks ago for 15-year-old Tina Fontaine. Her body was pulled from the river on Aug. 17, sparking renewed calls for a national inquiry into Canada's more than 1,180 murdered and missing aboriginal women.
The dredging effort, which Ms. Smith said extends to aboriginal and non-aboriginal remains, male or female, won't be without its challenges. One geologist noted bodies eventually become buoyant and that the river floor is cleared each year when it floods. "They'll find a lot of things, but not bodies," said Marc Pelletier, who specializes in dredging.
Although the Edmonton Police Service's Missing Persons Unit just last week launched its first random sweep of the North Saskatchewan River shoreline, that search relied on visual observation from land and water. Dragging the river, a spokesman said, was never on the table.
"That would be crazy," Scott Pattison said, adding officers spotted a man's body floating in the river just minutes after starting the Sept. 3 search. "It would pull up so much stuff – car parts, bicycles – and possibly even pull over the craft that's doing [the dredging] … That's Hollywood stuff."
The Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) said it doesn't randomly drag the river; rather, its dive team scours the dark waters based on specific information. Police are "not shy" about deploying the team, Sergeant Ben Haegeman told The Globe during a sit-down with members of the force in Winnipeg. "The police service is not blind to the river," he said. "It's part of our culture and part of our city."
Mr. Pattison said the WPS reached out to the Edmonton force about the North Saskatchewan River search last week, in part because a media report erroneously stated the efforts included dredging. He wouldn't discuss the call, except to say Winnipeg was interested in learning "best practices."
Ms. Smith said she doesn't necessarily think volunteers will retrieve bodies from the river, but she hopes they'll uncover evidence that would prompt police to search there themselves. "If we find bones, we'll stop, call police, mark the area, leave and have them go in and take over," said Ms. Smith, who has been advised that a city official will meet with her, on the mayor's behalf, to discuss the river drag.
She said her team, which includes aboriginals with experience dragging Manitoba lakes for remains, is aware of the safety concerns and has reached out to professional search and rescue groups for advice. The multiday effort will also include ground searches along the riverbanks.
"If we can find [remains] and give a family the comfort of maybe bringing their loved one home, then that's something," said Ms. Smith, whose sister is related to Helen Betty Osborne, the 1971 murder victim who brought the issue of violence against aboriginal women to the fore. "It's a double-edged sword. You hope you don't find anything, but you also hope you can find some answers."