Drag the Red sets out on new boat to search fast-moving waters

The new boat, which an Indigenous elder blessed in a smudging ceremony on Monday, brings about renewed hope that families will get that closure, volunteer Kyle Kematch said.

Kayleen McKay, 18, raised nearly $16K to purchase the boat for the volunteer search

Kayleen McKay, an 18-year old Winnipegger, ran 450 kilometres to honour her late cousin and raised nearly 16-thousand dollars for a new boat for Drag the Red. 2:12
Behind weeds growing from the riverbank and in the heat of mid-July, Kyle Kematch unwinds rope from a four foot-wide bar to attach to Drag the Red's new boat.
Kyle Kematch sets out on Drag the Red's new boat on Monday evening. (CBC)

He is one of few community members that volunteer their time to drag the Red River for traces of missing and murdered people.

"It eases my mind to know I'm doing the best to find my sister. She's been missing for six years now," he said.

"In my eyes, everybody deserves to go home."

The return home Kematch describes is synonymous with closure for families — particularly those with loved ones among 1,017 Indigenous women killed between 1980 and 2012 and 169 more listed as missing, the earliest case dating back to 1952.

The new boat, which an Indigenous elder blessed in a smudging ceremony on Monday, brings about renewed hope that families will get that closure, Kematch said.

"It's hard knowing those answers might be at the bottom of the river but if they're there, somebody has to go and try to find them," he said.
Kayleen McKay, 18, bought a new boat for Drag the Red with nearly $16,000 she raised by running from Manitoba's Duck Bay to Winnipeg. (CBC)

Kayleen McKay, 18, made her contribution to the search when she raised nearly $16,000 by running from Manitoba's Duck Bay to Winnipeg in May. She bought the boat with the money.

In 2015, McKay's cousin, Shawn Nepinak, took his own life by entering the river's fast-moving waters.

"You don't know what to think. You don't know what to feel," she said while describing what she remembers about searching the riverbanks as members of her family set out on the water with members of Drag the Red.

"I still think about [my cousin] every day. I still think of the good things even though he might have been seeing the darker side," she said.

McKay's father, Melvin Pangman, said he was proud of his daughter's accomplishment, particularly in the aftermath of Nepinak's death.

"It meant a lot to me that somebody was out there actually helping us," he said, thinking back to before Nepinak's body had washed up on the river's shores and he was still considered missing.

"I didn't know Kyle, I didn't know Bernadette [Smith, whose sister, Claudette Osborne, disappeared in 2008], but they truly cared. They could feel our pain."
The side of Drag the Red's new boat reads, 'Shawn,' a reference to 18-year-old Kayleen McKay's cousin, Shawn Nepinak, who took his own life by entering the Red River in 2015. (CBC)

Now, Pangman volunteers with Drag the Red, trying to bring answers and closures to other families that are where he once was.

By early evening, the new boat was equipped with a four foot-wide bar with four lines on it, each with three to four hooks attached.

"We drag it along the bottom of the river and we go with the current," Kematch said.

"As soon as you get a big snag it pretty much stops the boat."

The only thing missing, Kematch said, is help from the police. When Smith and Kematch started the initiative, shortly after 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was found dead in the river, the Winnipeg Police Service indicated they would support the group by monitoring the safety of its members.

Less than two years later, police involvement has deteriorated to nothing, according to Kematch.

Bones, later determined not to be human, dentures, a gun and clothing are among the items the group has found.

No matter what comes up, encountering a snag never gets less taxing, according to Kematch.

"You don't know what you're hooking onto and lots of things go through your mind," he said.

with files from Alana Cole and Courtney Rutherford