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Bernadine Thompson, whose mother went missing last Wednesday, attends a ceremony on the Alexander Docks to bless the Red River in Winnipeg on Sunday.

LYLE STAFFORD/The Globe and Mail

After a trial run on the weekend turned up pieces of cloth, volunteers will set out this week to drag Winnipeg's Red River in search of debris connected to the disappearance of aboriginal women.

Boats with crews of three will launch two at a time beginning at 5 p.m. on Wednesday from the docks of Redboine Boating Club, said Kyle Kematch, the volunteer who proposed the search after 15-year-old Tina Fontaine's body was found in the river on Aug. 17.

"We went out for a test run and it works really well," said Percy Ningewance, who began organizing the community-driven effort nearly two weeks ago and will lead the volunteer endeavour.

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The bits of cloth found during Saturday's test run have since been turned over to police.

Mr. Ningewance, former general manager of a fishing lodge in Lac Seul, in Northwestern Ontario, is training the crews. He's drawing on his experience helping police drag waterways for drowning victims. The search crews will use ropes fastened to approximately metre-long weighted bars, each equipped with four chains with hooks on the end, to search the silt-heavy river bottom.

"We're going low-tech, but at least we're trying. It's a symbol that at least something is being done," Mr. Ningewance said.

He doesn't expect to locate any bodies, but is hopeful volunteers will find pieces of cloth or other debris that can be turned over to police as evidence that may warrant further searching.

A pipe ceremony held at the Alexander Docks in Winnipeg on Sunday drew more than 100 people, 40 of whom volunteered to help drag the river. According to Bernadette Smith, who organized a Facebook group called Drag the Red!, another 30 volunteers had already signed on – and more are needed.

Her sister, Claudette Osborne, went missing from the streets of Winnipeg in 2008. On Sunday, Ms. Smith wore a T-shirt printed with Ms. Osborne's picture as she addressed the crowd that formed what one elder called a circle of warmth.

"For us, waters are spiritual and women's bodies should not be put in there," Ms. Smith said. "It's not going to be easy. When we were searching for my sister, hand in hand going through a field, there were mice running up our pants. We need action now. What we need is going to come."

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Ron Indian-Mandamin journeyed from the shores of Shoal Lake First Nation to offer a water blessing on Sunday. Mr. Indian-Mandamin, a 35-year-old self-described faith and knowledge keeper, said the blessing is meant to keep volunteers away from harm as they conduct the search.

"We offered tobacco and food to the water," he said. "We are seeking assistance for whoever may be in the water."

Mr. Indian-Mandamin sang pipe songs and burned sweet grass as the crowd gathered around blankets, on top of which lay drums and tobacco. Among the members of the solemn crowd was Bernadine Thompson, whose mother went missing this past Wednesday. Her mother was last seen at the riverbank.

"If any city should take the lead, it should be the city of Winnipeg," said Police Chief Devon Clunis at a meeting of the Winnipeg police commission last week. "There has been a long, historic marginalization and many of the issues we are facing in our community today are because of that."

There was no police presence at the test run on Saturday, according to Mr. Ningewance, and no officers were visible at the Alexander Docks on Sunday. But Mr. Ningewance said he believes police are supporting the effort.

Calls for a national inquiry into Canada's missing and murdered aboriginal women were renewed after Ms. Fontaine's body was discovered in the Red River.

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