Bernadette Smith and her team of volunteers are dredging Winnipeg's Red River again this year for evidence of missing aboriginal women, but this time they'll be doing it with the help of a forensic anthropologist.
Ms. Smith says she hopes a workshop on forensic expertise and training, scheduled for next weekend, will result in a more efficient search effort.
"Last year, we were searching the banks and that was a learning experience for us because we really didn't know what we were doing," Ms. Smith said. "We brought in a lot of things that could have been human, but we didn't know if they were or not."
The group of draggers – known collectively as Drag the Red – this year will be better-prepared.
"We will teach them, 'is it bone, is it possible it's bone, or is it a rock?' " said Emily Holland, the forensic anthropologist leading the workshop. "… So they can maximize their efficiency in what they're looking at and picking up."
Ms. Smith, whose sister Claudette Osborne has been missing since 2008, spearheaded the effort last summer after 15-year-old Tina Fontaine's body was pulled from the city's river in August. The teen became one of Canada's more than 1,180 murdered and missing aboriginal women, and one of seven bodies found in the river last year.
Four of those bodies were recovered while the search team was dragging, Ms. Smith said. The team didn't pull them up themselves – the dragging can push loose debris and then bodies flow to the surface later. "[Police] had only found three [bodies] in the 10 months prior. So what we were doing, we think we've contributed to those bodies being found," she said.
Indeed, the Red River has long been known as a spot of death and despair in Winnipeg. As a small child in the late 1970s, Ms. Smith said she recalls her mother coming across a body in the park next to the river.
"We always grew up wondering about the water because our parents had said don't play there – they thought people were in there, dead," she said. "It's been something that's been on people's minds – where are these people disappearing to – whether they're male or female," she said.
Ms. Smith hopes training with a forensic anthropologist to recognize human remains versus animal bones, for example, or spotting recently dug graves, will help volunteers better identify debris connected to the disappearance of her people.
But how the search is organized is also crucial, Dr. Holland said – especially since police aren't participating in or helping with the dredging effort itself. (They've limited their involvement to occasionally checking in on the draggers).
Dr. Holland's training will include organizing a proper search line, navigating the terrain and maintaining a system of documentation and communication. "They have to have a really clear protocol of what they do when they find something and who they communicate with and what happens," she said.
Last year, the dredging found bones, dentures, laptop computers and other objects that looked bloodstained – all of which the search team handed off to Winnipeg police.
Ms. Smith said she doesn't know how many of the objects police sent away for analysis. That's why she's invited members of the Winnipeg Police Service to attend – and lead – the workshop, hoping they can shed some light on what they consider valuable evidence.
Ideally, Ms. Smith would like to see search volunteers and police assist each other on the water. "That would mean extra boats covering extra ground, which would get it done faster," she said.
But in the meantime, the draggers are at it alone, dredging the river with three boats, six days a week. They plan to continue until at least October. A ground search begins next week, as well.
And while police have told them they're "looking for a needle in a haystack" with the dredging, Ms. Smith said it gives a sense of closure to many families of the missing. "People know that somebody's doing something, and that the area has been searched, and that their loved one isn't there."