Drag the Red says new boat will help continue search for evidence in cold cases
New boat comes at 'most opportune time ever' for group that searches for missing, murdered in Winnipeg rivers
The promise of a much-needed new motorboat —made possible by a $50,000 donation from a national union in the spirit of reconciliation — has lifted the spirits of a volunteer group that searches Winnipeg's Red River for signs of people who have gone missing or been murdered.
"We literally, with hooks, drag the bottom of the river looking for evidence or anything that might lead police to open up cold cases," said Mitch Bourbonniere, one of the lead volunteers with Drag the Red.
Six days a week from spring through fall, Drag the Red volunteers examine the waters and riverbanks in hopes of finding closure for devastated families and communities who wonder what happened to their loved ones.
"I know it's a needle in the haystack but if we can find anything — clothing, hair, anything that could be tied to any ongoing investigations — that's our goal," said Bourbonniere.
The group's work began following the death of Tina Fontaine, whose lifeless body was found at the bottom of the Red River in 2014, wrapped in a blanket and weighed down by stones. Outrage over the 15-year-old's death helped spur the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
It also inspired Drag the Red's work, which relies on boats — but they've struggled to keep those maintained and on the water.
Three years ago, then 18-year-old Kayleen McKay raised nearly $16,000 to buy Drag the Red a new boat, by running from Manitoba's Duck Bay to Winnipeg.
But last summer, the group's only boat — held together with duct tape and baling wire — broke down when the motor seized up, which led to more than $8,000 in repairs.
"We put a whole bunch of money into trying to repair it, and it's still not really operating. We were kind of devastated," Bourbonniere said.
Drag the Red recently welcomed the $50,000 donation for a new motorboat from Unifor, a national private sector union.
"We've actually been begging and borrowing different boats … so this comes at, like, just the most opportune time ever," said Bourbonniere.
New boat lifts spirits
Unifor sponsored the full cost of construction of the new boat. Spokesperson Joie Warnock, a regional representative for Unifor, said the boat itself is valued at $35,000, plus another $15,000 for the motor.
Unifor decided to sponsor the project in response to recommendations in the Truth and Reconcilation Commission's final report, said Warnock.
"This is part of putting action behind our commitment to those calls," she said, adding that some union members volunteer their time with Drag the Red.
The boat is being designed and built by Zag Fab Boats in Riverton, a community about 125 kilometres north of Winnipeg.
The purpose-built aluminum motorboat is expected to be six metres long and 2.5 metres wide, with two gas tanks and a set of winches along its sides. It will have room for six to eight people — which is usually the number of people who set out on the water for each search.
Search and rescue
To drag the bottom of the river in search of evidence, the volunteers have fashioned large rigs that look like giant multi-pronged fish hooks. They're welded together and extended using four cables attached to a bar, which is connected to another cable.
These rigs hang over the side of the boat, dangling into the depths of the river.
In addition to looking for evidence to help in police investigations of cold cases, Drag the Red assists search and rescue parties, as they did last year to help find a young man who drowned in a boating accident.
"We're more than just the boat," Bourbonniere said. For the families of missing and murdered people, their work shows that the community cares.
"It sends a message to perpetrators out there that using the river, dumping bodies … that's not going to happen with Drag the Red patrolling the water."
The new boat is expected to be ready to launch in August.
For more information, visit the Drag the Red Facebook page.