Down by the River
The Red River cuts through Winnipeg, ferrying discarded bicycles, tires and human remains. Susan Peters on the amateur investigators who comb its shores for clues of Manitoba’s missing.
AT THE RIVER’S EDGE, the searchers have found a bone. No, four bones. Two look like chunks of limestone stained tawny with mud, while another is a small circle that resembles a steak scrap given to a dog. The last is large and brown—and neatly chopped off. “A shoulder bone from a deer or cow?” one volunteer ventures. The four of us stand around, feet sinking into wet mud, and carefully handle the remains with gloves. Placing the bones on a sheet of lined paper torn from my notebook, along with a quarter for size comparison, search team leader Shauna Taylor snaps a photo, which is relayed to a forensic anthropologist from Manitoba’s Brandon University. Then we wait for an answer: are the bones animal or human?
The sombre find serves as our first break on a hot August afternoon. It’s also a chilling reminder of our purpose. The three women I’ve joined have been searching for signs of missing people along the banks of Winnipeg’s Red River. We spent the first hour walking south from the Louise Bridge, using rakes to part grasses and willows, turning over plastic bags and Styrofoam food containers—the detritus of people who fish or camp by the river. We looked for anything that could be considered evidence—discarded phones, bloodstained clothing, bones—anything that could be a sign of Canada’s vanished men and women, whose families are unsure if they will ever be found.
As we wait for an answer from the anthropologist, the women talk about why they are here. “I grew up on the street. I was one of the prostitute teenagers,” says Taylor, now forty-three. “A lot of women I worked with have gone missing, my street family. We hustled together, we did drugs and alcohol together.” However, Taylor notes that while the public often wants to blame a person’s lifestyle for being murdered, it can happen to anyone at any time. “You could be sitting at home with your husband and be murdered,” she argues.
Resting on boulders beside the slow-moving river that squiggles through Winnipeg’s downtown, Taylor tells us a story. This past June, a van drove around her suburban neighbourhood. The man inside called out to her fourteen-year-old daughter as she walked down the street, telling her to get inside. Neighbours eventually intervened: one attempted to grab the driver, while another took a photo of the vehicle’s license plate before it sped away. “The guy was hunting,” says one of the searchers, outraged. Taylor says that when the police came, one officer seemed sympathetic, while the other listened poorly and gave her dirty looks. As far as Taylor knows, nothing else was done about the incident.
The three women I am with are volunteers with Drag the Red, a grassroots group that has taken forensic investigation into its own hands. Volunteers have returned to the Red River day after day for the past two years to search for Manitoba’s dozens of missing men, women and children on behalf of their families. Many of these searchers are First Nations men and women from Winnipeg and Manitoba’s reserves. The group’s very existence is a symptom of a Prairie city where many aboriginal residents have an uneasy relationship with police. It also reflects a country where an RCMP report sets the number of missing aboriginal women at 174. Lacking trust in official channels, these searchers have taken it upon themselves to continue the active search.
After fifteen minutes of waiting by the river, Taylor receives a text. It’s the anthropologist: the bones aren’t human after all. The tension deflates, and with our two-hour shift almost over, we pack up. One volunteer cuts herself with a small pair of scissors and then worries about an infection. “It’s like a phobia,” she explains.
As we climb up the riverbank towards the street, we take turns reciting our fears: blood-borne viruses, garter snakes in the grass, poison ivy. No one wants to bring up the predators who try to lure children into vans. We do not say that we’re afraid of that moment before we unroll a plastic tarp, wondering if we’ll find human remains inside. No one speaks to the parallel fear that we won’t find anyone—that when we search beside someone looking for their daughter or grandson, we would like, so badly, to get closure for them, but there’s a good chance we won’t find anything at all.
ON AUGUST 17, 2014, Winnipeg police divers pulled the body of fifteen-year-old Tina Fontaine, wrapped in plastic, from the Red River. Officers weren’t actually looking for Fontaine in that area—they were searching for a man who had been spotted drowning two days earlier. The discovery of the teenage girl, tossed like trash into the river, sparked an outcry in Winnipeg unlike any seen before. At a memorial service two days later, more than one thousand people gathered to mourn and question why another life had been added to the list of approximately 1,200 missing and murdered Canadian aboriginal women. For many, the killing of another child was the tipping point towards action.
When Fontaine was lifted from the water, high school teacher Bernadette Smith was reminded of another murdered teenager. In 2003, the remains of sixteen-year-old Felicia Solomon Osborne were found close to the Alexander Docks. Smith couldn’t help but connect the two girls who were found in the same river, in almost the same spot. “We knew there were other bodies there,” she says. “Andwethought,well,thepoliceshould be doing more to search.” Three days after Fontaine was found, Smith posted a call on Facebook for volunteers. She wanted to form a grassroots search effort to comb the river and find the other missing women and men who she was sure were out there. Kyle Kematch, a drywaller from Winnipeg, was the first to respond. He was eager to start looking. “I have a sister missing,” he says. “And they pulled Tina out of the river. I look at Tina, and that’s just proof there’s more bodies down there. I do it for my sister. I do it for all the others who are missing.”
A few weeks after Tina Fontaine’s death, Drag the Red held its first search. Volunteers took a trial run on the river with a borrowed boat, testing dragging equipment, trying to figure out how to hook items that littered the bottom, out of sight. Motivated by the discovery of Fontaine’s body, subsequent early searches saw volunteers bring four boats to help out. They discovered dentures, objects that appeared to be bones and fabric that looked bloodstained. They did not find any bodies. In their early ground searches along the shoreline, volunteers wore gloves to handle potential evidence and took notes of where items were found, but they didn’t yet have rakes to break the surface and see if anything was buried.
Nobody predicted that Drag the Red volunteers would still be searching two years later. Compared to the first year’s learning curve, the searchers have refined their techniques with experience and training from anthropologists. Under the leadership of Kyle Kematch and Bernadette Smith, the organization has had more than one hundred volunteers participate. In 2015 alone, members conducted more than one hundred searches. The group spent $20,000 last year, raised from donations and Smith’s family, on a boat, gas, food and search equipment.
A number of the volunteers have personal connections to Manitoba’s missing. The Guimonds look for their son, Chris, who disappeared in April 2015. The Bushies search for their missing boy, Bradden. The Nepinaks are trying to find their daughter, Tanya. Many volunteers are also aboriginal—a group that is disproportionately affected by violent crime across the country. Statistics Canada reports that, in 2014, aboriginal women were six times more likely to be murdered compared to their non-aboriginal counterparts. Aboriginal men were seven times more likely to be a homicide victim compared with non-aboriginal males. But Smith says that the biggest myth about the group is that they’re only out there specifically searching for missing aboriginal women. “We’re searching for all people,” she says. “All people matter.”
Like many of the volunteers, Smith knows what it’s like to have a missing family member. She can still recall the laugh of her baby sister, Claudette Osborne, and remembers how she loved to be pushed in her Jolly Jumper. Osborne grew up and eventually had four children of her own, including a daughter born just weeks before she disappeared. On July 25, 2008, Osborne left a message for another of her sisters, saying that she was being held against her will at a hotel in Winnipeg’s North End. It was the last time the family heard from her.
While police investigated, the family started their own search. A busload of volunteers made the eight hundred kilometre journey south from Norway House, the remote community of Osborne’s mother, to help look for her in a field in the northwest of Winnipeg. It was an area where other women had been found in the past. The searchers used duct tape to seal off the bottoms of their pants and brooms to swat away the field mice that kept running up their legs. “We walked hand in hand across a farmer’s field. You’re searching for your loved one. We found [unknown animal] remains. And you find bones, and you don’t know if it’s your loved one or not,” says Smith, choking up a little.
Claudette Osborne is still classified as missing. She is now one of twenty-eight cold cases that make up Project Devote, a joint Winnipeg police and RCMP task force created to solve murdered and missing person cases dating back to 1961. She is also on the list of 190 men and women who are recorded as missing persons by the Manitoba Association of Chiefs of Police. Smith is realistic about what has likely happened to her sister, but without a body, it will remain an unanswered question. “We know human trafficking is happening in Canada. If she’s still alive, someone is holding her against her will. Otherwise, she would come back to her family,” Smith says. “We don’t let go of the hope that one day she’ll walk through the door, alive.”
IN A PACKED SEMINAR ROOM at the University of Manitoba, forensic anthropologist Emily Holland stands in front of a Power Point image of the television show Bones. A big blue “X” covers actors Emily Deschanel and David Boreanaz. Speaking to the crowd of anthropology professors and graduate students, Holland explains that her job isn’t quite as glamorous as the version depicted by her television counterpart.
Holland, a tenure-track appointee at Brandon University, is the expert that Drag the Red consults to determine whether the bones they find are human or animal. Holland’s relationship with the organization started last spring, when she was one of the half-dozen anthropologists who conducted workshops with the volunteers to train them on how to properly organize and conduct a search. The professionals instructed the group on how bones can look like rocks or driftwood, coloured moss green or dirt brown; they showed the searchers how to cover ground efficiently by walking an arm’s length apart; they taught them how to place potential evidence in bags, and to keep notes on where items were discovered. “They’ve found about fifty bones since June, so they’re clearly good at finding bones,” says Holland. In 2014, Drag the Red collected every animal bone and piece of stray clothing that they found and handed it over to police—an overwhelming amount of material. In their second season, thanks to the anthropologists’ advice, the group began collecting potential evidence with more discernment.
At the end of the talk, the professors and grad students ask questions about the search. Can police get DNA evidence from something that has been in the river, linking victim and perpetrator? Chances are very low. Are there ethical concerns about training amateurs who may contaminate a crime scene, instead of leaving the task to police? “If I were running the search myself, it would be different,” says Holland. “But what I can do is try to share the information that will keep them safe, and help them to conduct a search in as efficient a manner as possible.”
The academics also debate amongst themselves. They wonder if this search of the Red River is politically motivated—a way to gain media exposure. They question whether there is too much attention paid to missing and murdered aboriginal women, and not enough to missing and murdered aboriginal men. On the other hand, some say, by proclaiming that Drag the Red searches for all people, does that actually hide the issue of missing aboriginal women?
During the session, someone from the crowd directs a question to Holland: how many human bones have been found by Drag the Red to date? None, she replies.
BELOW THE RED’S SURFACE, sight fails quickly. A muddy boat-highway of curves and switchbacks that meanders through the city, the water is dark with silt: no light penetrates to the bottom ten to twenty feet below.
Motoring past downtown landmarks like the Forks and the Louise Bridge, Kyle Kematch and Calvin Alexander talk about the areas they consider likely spots for a body: the Disraeli Bridge, St. John’s Park, the Alexander Docks. “Elmwood Park,” says Alexander. “You can pull a truck in the back and dump a body there.”
On a grey fall afternoon, the boat crew—Kematch in a Winnipeg Jets jersey and Alexander in a matching cap—try out a new search technique. Steering the well-worn fishing boat in a slow circle near the Disraeli Bridge, they cast a homemade dragger into the river. The four-foot long dragging bar, welded together in a volunteer’s workshop, is hung with metal hooks that look like three-pronged tridents. They use the dragger to troll for snags, fishing for whatever they can grab. When they pull up a traffic sign or bicycle, the junk is piled in one spot, so it won’t get caught again. Dragging is harder than it looks: when I try, the bar is too heavy for me to heave out of the water, even with nothing caught on the ends.
This is the pair’s second season of dragging the river. A drywaller by profession, Kematch quit work at the end of this past spring to free up more time for dredging, searching up to seven times a week. “I have a family member missing, and it makes me feel better to know that people are searching for her,” says Kematch. His sister, Amber Guiboche, was last seen getting into a truck on November 10, 2010. She had just turned twenty. Does Kematch think his little sister might be alive and living somewhere else? “I pray to God that she is,” Kematch says. “But if she’s not alive, I’d still like to find her. In the government’s eyes, she’s not deceased. We can’t have a funeral. All we can have is more of those memorials.” Kematch thinks police could have done more when Guiboche went missing: her disappearance wasn’t taken seriously, he says, because she was twenty, on probation and drinking—people thought she would come back on her own. Four years after she vanished, police released a sketch and description of a man thought to have been driving the truck. Kematch thinks the police should have tried to find the truck immediately, not four years later. “It’s much easier to label her a prostitute than to admit that we have predators who prey on the vulnerable,” he would later explain.
Kematch isn’t the only one who is critical of the police. Drag the Red has started getting tips from the public—people who are jogging or walking their dog by the river and see something. “Some of them have said to us they don’t think the police will take it seriously. People think the police won’t go check it out,” explains Bernadette Smith. One anonymous Facebook message, received September 14, 2015, directed the group to a spot near Fort Gibraltar. There, in a pile of shells, Kematch found four human teeth. He turned them over to police, and was later told that a dentist identified them as wisdom teeth. Kematch still wonders whose they are, and if that person is okay—if they’re still alive. “They said the teeth were surgically removed,” he says, frustration rising in his voice. “I think they were just mad because we went to the media.”
Rob Riffel, a staff sergeant with the Winnipeg police who serves as a liaison with Drag the Red, says that the department will send divers into the dark, muddy river for specific reasons, such as when a person has been seen entering the water due to accident or suicide. The department has side-scanning sonar technology, which can be used for searching the riverbed, but Riffel says it is less useful than one might think: people tend to dump trash off bridges in Winnipeg, creating a confusing underwater landscape. “It’s difficult, because it’s going to show targets on the river bottom, and they’re not definitive. It will show something that is the same size and shape as a body, but it could be a series of tires, it could be a log,” Riffel says. In the black water, the dive team must work by touch alone. Drowning is a constant risk, as divers can easily become entangled on debris like shopping carts.
According to Riffel, police have supported Drag the Red in the small ways they can, by suggesting likely search areas in the river bends where eddies swirl and leave deposits. But police won’t put their resources into joining an underwater search that Riffel says, while admirable, is akin to searching for a needle in a haystack when it’s unclear if the needle is actually there to begin with.
Addressing the fact that community members have been sending tips to Drag the Red instead of the police, Riffel says that it is not an ideal situation. “The problem is,” he says, “that the continuity of evidence now kind of gets more diluted if this turns out to be, say, evidence of a murder or a crime.” He reflects for a moment: “If there are people out there who feel more comfortable contacting Drag the Red about it, in my view, at least something is being done about it.”
Kyle Kematch gives a grudging acknowledgement of the police’s efforts to find the vanished: “It’s not easy to find a missing person. It’s hard to get an investigation done when nobody wants to talk.” Still, he argues, with all their expensive equipment, the police should be able to do more.
Finding human remains underwater is not easy. Bodies sink, they decompose, they fill with gas and float. They flow with the river’s current, and then sink again. The tidy skeleton evoked by Halloween decorations is a myth, as bones become separated, drifting along the river’s bottom. Anthropologist Holland describes the difficulty of pulling a bone or body from the river on a dragger’s hook as “tremendous.” There may be more potential looking on the riverbanks, she says, where bones sometimes wash up.
During one past boat search, Kematch pulled a loaded rifle out of the river, which was then turned over to police. Searchers have also found items they considered suspicious, such as buckets of cement tied to ropes (was this someone disposing of evidence, or a contractor getting rid of extra cement?). When one looks with fearful eyes, everything appears ominous, including the wisdom teeth left by the river, or the recent discovery of maggots: “What were they eating?” wonders Alexander. Kematch shows me a clump of hair in a plastic Big Gulp cup. “This was just pulled up last week,” he says. The hair appears to be human, and it could indicate remains decomposing below the river’s surface. It also looks like something pulled out of a shower drain.
Alexander tells me of his plan to start a college program in alcohol and drug counselling, to put himself on track to find work. Becoming a counsellor would allow him to help people in a different way than volunteering with Drag the Red. “I lost a cousin. She was raped and killed twenty years ago. Everybody that’s going missing. It’s crazy. I’m just happy to be able to volunteer and help,” he says. While other family members of the missing have come out to search in the past, Alexander thinks not everyone is emotionally prepared to volunteer. “I’m doing something for the families, even if they’re not able to deal with it right now,” he says. After one particularly tolling shift, Alexander says he couldn’t stop crying for a day, thinking about the families looking for their children, the spirits around the river, and the eagles the searchers sometimes see that he says indicate a connection to the Creator. “You can feel it emotionally when you pull on something important,” he says.
In the overcast light, the guys tell me that this afternoon will be one of the last drags of the season, as it’s getting too cold. Kematch cracks wise: “You should write that it was a dark and stormy night and they were still dragging,” he says.
While Kematch slowly drives the boat near the Disraeli Bridge, Alexander pulls on the dragging bar. “Oh, it fell off. Something on there,” he says.
Water splashes inside the boat with each tug. Alexander pulls up the hooks. “There it is, I’ve got it. I think I’ve got it.”
We look at our haul: from the bottom of the river, the hooks have pulled up tree branches and a loose-knitted sock, full of mud.
BREAKING NEWS OF A MISSING PERSON often prompts volunteers in Canada to put up posters, comb parks and wooded areas, and go door-to-door for information. But in the days and weeks that follow, friends, neighbours and concerned citizens drop off, leaving the task of finding the missing to the professionals and a few determined family members. In this country, it’s unusual for a large-scale grassroots search to continue years and decades after a person has disappeared. This is what differentiates Drag the Red from other missing-person searches that occur in Canada—in fact, it has closer similarities to those undertaken in places where trust in the authorities is low, markers of a strong society have collapsed and the disappearances of marginalized people—the indigenous, the sex workers, the low-income earners, the migrants—get little attention.
In the sprawling desert between Mexico and Arizona, more than one hundred migrants die each year attempting to cross to the United States. It is here that the small non-profit Colibrí Center, housed with the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner in Tucson, tries to identify the remains. Missing person reports filed by families in Mexico are invaluable. Kat Rodriguez, a family network specialist at Colibrí, has been working with the families of the missing since 2006. She has seen the technological changes: people trust DNA evidence more; families have organized multiple Facebook groups to share photos of the missing and support each other. Rodriguez is, in fact, an expert at providing closure to families. She rejects any notion that a “disappeared” label might comfort a family, allowing them to live in hope that their loved one will return. “You might think for a minute, well, I’d rather think of them as happy. But most of the time, we want the truth,” she says. Though Rodriguez still finds it hard to tell a family that their loved one has died, she says that it ultimately allows relatives to grieve and move on with their lives. “You’re talking about people who have wondered and had nightmares and feared for years,” she says. “A lot of times what you’re imagining is worse than what it really is. To me, it’s a trauma, it’s a torture.”
Further south, in Guatemala, forensic anthropologists from around the world are working with indigenous communities to uncover graves from the country’s three-decade civil war, which resulted in 140,000 people being declared dead or missing. Cristian Silva Zuñiga, a forensic anthropologist trained at the University of Northern British Columbia who has worked in the country, explains that rural and indigenous people can find it more difficult to get attention from the government for their missing relatives. “This kind of work is impossible without the families’ help,” Zuñiga says. Relatives are the ones who make the official requests to exhume burial sites. In many cases, it’s the family members who are able to identify remains, sometimes based on clothing. In Guatemala, uncovering the remains of a relative can mean finally getting a death certificate, which is essential for receiving an inheritance or government benefits.
But most of all, Zuñiga says that the discovery of a grave can be important spiritually. Before anthropologists exhume a site, they might conduct prayers in three common religions: evangelical Christian, traditional Mayan and Christian Mayan. If bodies are uncovered, the location often becomes a place for relatives to pray and leave flowers. Zuñiga notes that while much work remains for him in Guatemala, he sees a similar need closer to home: “I think about Canada, I think about our indigenous communities, our First Nations here. The residential schools, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the missing women that we see in Winnipeg,” he says. It isn’t so different after all.
IN THE FALL, the Red River search settles into a new schedule. Ground teams head out to comb the fallen leaves and overgrowth on weekends and evenings, after school or work ends for the day. There isn’t much time left; Drag the Red goes on hiatus in October, when the temperature becomes too cold for volunteers to keep searching. The plan is to resume in April or May, after ice breaks up on the river and spring runoff recedes.
Organizer Bernadette Smith has big plans for the group’s third year: she wants to buy a second boat, she wants to experiment with a sonar scanner, and she wants to make use of hip waders and wetsuits that were recently donated to the group. There is talk of running new forensic workshops and a strategy to recruit more volunteers to prevent burnout as the hard, slow work continues. Smith has no intention to quit. “We’ll do it as long as we have the volunteers and the resources,” she says. The ultimate goal is to get the police involved more. In fact, Smith wants to see them put together a team of their own to search for bodies in likely areas, similar to Drag the Red. “They have boats, divers and a scanner. There are people in the community who will help,” Smith says. “We’d like to have a working relationship.”
Of the evidence collected in 2015, the rifle is still being investigated by the RCMP. The plastic cup of hair was examined, but the forensic identification unit decided it didn’t have significance. After two years of dragging the river without major results, Kematch remains undiscouraged. “My point of view is that if Amber is in the river it is up to us to search,” he tells me in an online message. He says that he doesn’t trust the police to keep looking for her. Kematch refuses to give up hope. The more others try to question whether the amateur searchers will ever find evidence of Manitoba’s missing, the more it hardens his stubborn determination to continue. For one thing, he thinks if criminals see that the river is being regularly searched, it will discourage them from dumping more bodies there.
On the last day of September, with the threat of rain hanging in the air, I meet up with searcher Shauna Taylor near the Alexander Docks. She has brought another volunteer this evening, an old school friend who also grew up with Claudette Osborne, Smith’s missing sister. We walk north along the riverbank through willows taller than us, past cottonwoods marked with violent gashes, the missing bark sheared off by chunks of ice during spring floods. Taylor studies the trees, looking up at them every so often as we search for bones along the riverbank. “I’m thinking about where the video cameras would go,” she says. “If we had video cameras pointing to the river, maybe people wouldn’t put bodies here. But part of me wonders if the bodies would be put somewhere else instead.”
Taylor spent the summer applying for jobs. She recently earned a degree at Red River College; she learned how to work with people with disabilities, and she’s now doing further training to become an elder, spending much of her time meeting with spiritual advisors, and attending sweats and ceremonies. Still, she manages to come to the Red River four days each week to continue the search. Before each shift, Taylor tries to say a prayer, lay tobacco, or offer a hug to someone who is looking for a lost sister or son. When she returns home, she will often listen to music, cry, pray and smudge with smoke to purify herself. The work can be draining.
Among the piles of driftwood that line the shore, I find a desiccated mouse, the pearly shell of a freshwater mussel and part of a fish skeleton. Canada geese honk overhead. Venturing into the trees, the three of us inspect the charred wood of a campfire as the sky starts to drizzle. In the fading daylight, dark figures appear on the path at the top of the riverbank. Taylor recognizes them: it’s the Bushies, father and mother of Bradden, a Winnipeg teenager who went missing in 2013. They have spent the summer searching for clues about what happened to their boy, sometimes with Drag the Red, other times on their own. They confer with Taylor, pulling up a photo on their phone to show what they found today: catfish bones.
The rain picks up and the sun is setting. It’s time to head back to the car. Before we leave, Taylor ties an orange plastic ribbon to a branch. It’s a marker of where she left off, to let the others know where to start the search again, next time.