Manitoba

Daughter hopes dragging Thompson river will yield signs of missing mom

Family and volunteers headed out in Thompson on Wednesday to drag the bottom of the Burntwood River in the months-long search for Diane Bignell, 60.

Dianne Bignell's jacket was found near the Burntwood River in June

Volunteers drag the bottom of the Burntwood River in Thompson for signs of Dianne Bignell, who has been missing since May 17. (Supplied by Clara Bignell)

What was supposed to be a happy get-together with friends in Thompson has turned into an agonizing, months-long search for Dianne Mae Bignell that is heading below the surface of the Burntwood River.

Bignell was last seen by a cousin on the morning of her 60th birthday on May 17. Investigators say she then headed into Thompson to see friends, but hasn't been seen since.

"I'm frustrated — tired mentally, emotionally, physically," her daughter, Clara Bignell, said Tuesday.

"I don't know what to do a lot of the time. I know I am going to keep going until I bring my mom home." 

RCMP say Dianne Mae Bignell was last seen on the morning of Thursday, May 17. (Supplied by Manitoba RCMP)

Clara says there have been few developments in the case she is aware of, although RCMP confirm Bignell's jacket was found near the Burntwood River at the end of June.

On Wednesday, a joint search effort took to the river, which runs along the north and west of Thompson, in hopes of finding signs of Bignell.

Family and volunteers headed out on boats alongside RCMP and Manitoba Hydro crews to drag the river bottom with hooks and chains to try to dredge up evidence.

A member of the RCMP helps a vehicle back up a boat to launch Wednesday morning. (Supplied by Clara Bignell)

A mobile crisis support team with Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) was on site to provide emotional support to anyone who needed it, says Hilda Anderson-Pyrz, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls liaison with the group.

"We want to send a reminder that this could happen to anybody and it's important that the public support in any way that they can because you never know when it could be your family member," she said.

"We see the heartache that the Bignell family is going through right now."

Clara Bignell holds up equipment before heading out to drag the bottom of the Burntwood River Wednesday morning. (Supplied by Clara Bignell)

Clara has been searching the river and its shores since July, but Wednesday was the first time volunteers lowered hooks in the river in the style of Drag the Red, a volunteer-based group that has been dragging river bottoms in Winnipeg for evidence that could help solve missing persons cases.

In the lead-up, MKO and search leaders called on the public to donate everything from hooks, rope, life-jackets, submersible cameras, sonar equipment, gasoline, boats, motors, food, money and other supplies.

RCMP and Manitoba Hydro crews helped family and volunteers during the search Wednesday. (Supplied by Clara Bignell)

Anderson-Pyrz says missing person searches in parts of the heavily wooded, sparsely populated north can be incredibly challenging. It can be hard to muster the resources and a large enough volunteer base to get through what can some times turn into long searches like this one.

"That's a critical part, having that manpower to be able to conduct those searches," she said. "In the Thompson region, it's such a vast area when you're trying to conduct a search for someone who is missing."

Imagine if it was your parents out there.- Clara Bignell

In addition to forming some kind of government-funded permanent search and rescue team in the north, led by people with local knowledge of the land and waterways, Anderson-Pyrz says there is a high need for governments to commit more money and resources toward northern searches and financially supporting family who have to travel from remote communities to help.

To illustrate, Anderson-Pyrz points to steep flight costs from remote communities.

"Many times a lot of individuals cannot afford the cost of travelling," she said, noting the cost of the 1,000-kilometre Lac Brochet-Winnipeg round trip is about $2,000.

"Why should families have to try to undertake this, a lot of times on their own, when searches have been called off?"

Clara Bignell and others will drag the bottom of the Burntwood River in Thompson Wednesday in the search for her missing mother. (Supplied by Clara Bignell)

The past three months of searching has taken a toll on Clara, 40, and her three children — ages 17, 19 and 21. She and her kids live in Brandon, but she has been going back and forth since May to look for her mother.

"It's hard being away from them. It's hard on them, too, missing their grandma, worried about me," Clara said through tears.

Dianne Bignell is five feet four inches tall with a heavy build, shoulder-length grey hair, brown eyes and wears glasses. (Supplied by Clara Bignell)

Clara expects a number of cousins, family and elders will be out on or near the river on Wednesday.

She is asking anyone who can donate their time, boat or other supplies to the search effort to help out.

"Imagine if it was your parents out there — the fact of not knowing whether she is out there, alive or not," she said. "It's already been 89 days since anyone has seen her.

"Just to think if it was one of your loved ones and they would want the help that I am asking for. Donate your time and help me bring her home."

Anyone who wants to volunteer or make a donation should contact Hilda Anderson-Pyrz at 1-204-307-5919 or via email at hilda.anderson.pyrz@mkonorth.com.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bryce Hoye

Reporter

Bryce Hoye is an award-winning journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology and interests in courts, climate, health and more. He recently finished up a stint as a producer for CBC's Quirks & Quarks. He is the Prairie rep for OutCBC. Story idea? Email bryce.hoye@cbc.ca.

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