Drag the Red searchers get forensics crash course in Winnipeg

A group of Drag the Red volunteers was given a crash course in forensics by anthropologist at the University of Winnipeg today.

Workshop designed to help volunteers spot bones in search areas along Red River

Drag the Red searchers get expert help

8 years ago
Duration 2:26
Volunteers dragging the bottom of the Red River in Winnipeg receive crash course in forensics

A group of Drag the Red volunteers is receiving a crash course in forensics by anthropologists at the University of Winnipeg.

Drag the Red searchers started their second year of combing the Red River in May. The group has been dragging hooks from boats across the river bottom since last fall, driven to action after the death of Tina Fontaine.

Researchers and volunteers with Drag the Red came together at the U of W Saturday to learn how to sharpen their efforts and search more safely.

Drag the Red organizer Bernadette Smith said they're ecstatic to have professionals participating this year.
Drag the Red searchers were shown how to spot bones by forensic anthropologists at the University of Winnipeg June 6. The bone in the foreground is from a pelican, a bird that's commonly found along the Red River. (Sara Calnek/CBC)

"We were super happy, because now we have people who are trained in this sort of thing," she said, adding the group wants to be more targeted with what they turn over to police so as to not waste investigators' time.

"We asked if they could do a training day with our group so that we know exactly what we're looking for, are on the right track ... and that we're not bringing things in that necessarily don't need to be brought in."

Decomposed remains, biohazards

Emily Holland, an anthropology professor at Brandon University and a trained forensic specialist, said she wanted to help the group search more effectively, "so they're looking as critically and cautiously as they can."

"It's going to be very difficult. If you think about the scale of what these people are undertaking. there is a lot of land, a lot of water," she said. 
Emily Holland, an anthropology professor from Brandon University, said she wanted to help Drag the Red volunteers make their search efforts more safe and efficient. (Angela Johnston/CBC)

She stressed the potential for dehydration, sun stroke and being exposed to biohazards associated with decomposed human remains needs to be taken into account before venturing out onto the water.

Holland said one of the purposes of the course was to give volunteers a basic framework for how to spot bones in their search areas.

'What bone looks like'

"Bone can look like lots of things. It has a very particular structure: hard dense outer layer, looks like a tube," said Holland, adding once bones are recovered they need to be sent to an expert to be identified. 
Emily Holland, an anthropology professor at Brandon University, said she got involved with Drag the Red because she wanted to help bring the friends and family of missing persons some closure. (CBC)

"It's just about really making sure they know what bone looks like."

She added that searchers could come across partial remains on shorelines.

"These aren't nice things to think about but these are the kinds of things that happen," said Holland.

"As a forensic anthropologist, I do that part of my work because people matter. I can't do anything about what has happened to someone before, but I can try to help find them. I can help ID them and help tell their story and bring closure to families."

Learning curves

Smith said the extra help is encouraging her and other volunteers to keep at it, despite the challenges encountered last year.

"Last year we hit a lot of learning curves. We really didn't know what we were doing," said Smith.
Chris Speidel, a friend of Tina Fontaine's mom, has been helping with Drag the Red since its first year. (CBC)

"We're going to continue to learn with the efforts of other people who have the expertise."

Chris Speidal got involved last year because he's good friends with Tina Fontaine's mom. He started out by driving volunteers to and from search locations before getting involved on the ground. 

"It was emotional, knowing all of the people that were missing," he said. "Before I never thought much of it, until it hit home, so that's what really inspired me to do it."

Drag the Red plans to search every day until October.

A range of bones from different species were on hand for the group. (Angela Johnston/CBC)