Meet the volunteers who search for missing and murdered Indigenous women in Winnipeg
Meet the volunteers who search for missing and murdered Indigenous women in Winnipeg
Photo Credit: instagram.com/whatbringsushere

In 2014, the body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was found in Winnipeg's Red River. When public outcry about her death quickly subsided, Indigenous people in the area decided to take action. 

“I know the police can’t put resources everywhere, but there are so many loose ends with the issue of missing Aboriginal women and it doesn’t seem to be getting a lot of priority,” says Bob Geddes, a volunteer with Bear Clan, a volunteer organization that patrols the streets of the city’s North End.

Tired of being the casualties of institutional inaction, Bear Clan and Drag The Red (a group that drags the Red River, looking for clues about missing and murdered women) work every day to keep their communities safe and accounted for.

This River, a short documentary, tells the story of the devastating experience of searching for a loved one who didn't come home.

In anticipation of the doc's release, the National Film Board created an Instagram account, What Brings Us Here, to highlight Bear Clan and Drag the Red volunteers, many of whom have missing loved ones.

Alison Cox’s mother was murdered when Alison was just a baby. After being adopted into a non-Indigenous family and moving far away from her community for many years, Alison decided to come back and help with the search.

 

“When you’re a child of someone who’s been murdered and you start hearing all of these stories of murder in your community, you become traumatized all over again, like, you just keep reliving the trauma even though it’s not your story. There are some little pieces inside that just spring open once you start listening. . I was becoming very depressed because of the number of traumas that were being retold in the newspapers, on tv, and I was starting to get really sick, very ashamed, very lost, feeling suicidal. These were all things that I went through as I was trying to learn about the story of my mother’s murder, and hearing all those stories reminded me.” . Alison Cox Red Robe Drummer Photo: @janinekropla

A photo posted by What Brings Us Here (@whatbringsushere) on

Melvin Pangman found his nephew in the river. “We hooked him and we pulled his shirt out. And the police still didn’t put divers down looking for him.”

 

“That river – I never paid attention to it, until my family member went into it. I was probably like many other Winnipeggers that just looks at the river and think ‘oh it’s nice, it’s a beautiful thing’. When you lose somebody and you know they’re in there, it’s a completely different feeling. It’s very lonesome. You feel it when you’re out there searching. That’s what I noticed the most is that feeling, of lonesomeness. . I don’t know how I could have dealt with things if we hadn’t found our family member. If he was still in that water today, I don’t know how I’d deal with not knowing, because I was just so overwhelmed by it.” . Melvin Pangman Drag the Red volunteer Photo: @markreimer

A photo posted by What Brings Us Here (@whatbringsushere) on

Kyle Kematch is one of the co-founders of Drag the Red. He quit his job and drags the river full time in search of his sister, Amber, who went missing in 2010.

Some volunteers may not have lost loved ones, but they have other reasons for helping out. Aaron Stevens and Scott Osesky credit volunteering with Bear Clan for their continued sobriety.

 

 

“I’ve had a shaky past. I like to give back to my community now. I’ve got three years and four months of sobriety now. I was having a hard time when I joined the Bear Clan. I had just been released from prison and I was kind of up against a wall. I was thinking of going back to the biker lifestyle – I figured that I couldn’t make it in the real world. Walking with the Bear Clan changed my mind, brought me back to reality and I started coming out every night. I’m here five nights a week. . I grew up on these streets. I know the people in the neighbourhood – the good, the bad, the ugly. And they know me. When we’re out walking I get a lot of respect from gang members. I feel like the Bear Clan keeps everybody safe, and I’m there to keep Bear Clan safe.” . Scott Osesky Bear Clan Patrol volunteer Photo: @markreimer

A photo posted by What Brings Us Here (@whatbringsushere) on

Many volunteers, like Darryl Contois, feel an intense connection to the work. They feel compelled to search for answers and find clues, not matter how gruelling the work.

Bernadette Smith founded Drag the River in response to the reaction she got from the police after her sister, Claudette Osborne, went missing in 2008.

“My sister was an Aboriginal woman, she had a drug addiction, and she had a criminal record. We think all of these things played a role in the way her case was handled,” she says.

All this work — hours spent combing through river banks and side streets, the struggle of making connections with the North End community, the pushing back against the systems that don’t hear them — all of it is done in the hope that everyone can come back home, says Kyle Kematch.