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Volunteers use hooks and chains to search Winnipeg river for missing women

They gather along the shores of the Red River in Winnipeg. A small group of volunteers who meet at a make-shift memorial for Tina Fontaine. She is just one of almost 1200 missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. In the water and along the shore, they search for those who have been taken.

Drag the Red searches Winnipeg river for signs of the missing and murdered

For two years, Drag the Red volunteers have been searching Winnipeg's Red River. Those in the boats dropped metal bars and hooks about four metres deep and trolled the river, while those on the bank combed through the grass, trees and scrub. (CBC)
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They gather along the shores of the Red River in Winnipeg, a small group of volunteers who meet at a makeshift memorial.

The flowers, sweetgrass and teddy bears are for Tina Fontaine, a teenage girl who was murdered, wrapped in plastic and dumped into this river in August 2014 . She is just one of almost 1200 missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada.

A makeshift memorial marks the meeting point for Drag the Red volunteers. (Trevor Hagan/CP)
The 15-year old's murder shocked and outraged the public. Over 1000 people attended a vigil and march that began at the Alexander Docks. But Bernadette Smith, whose sister Claudette Osborne has been missing since 2008, wanted to do more. 

So she organized Drag the Red two years ago, asking volunteers to search in the water and along the shore for signs of those taken. The volunteers come for friends, family or because they want to find closure for others. 

Two or three people go out on the boat almost every day. Over and over a rope attached to a metal bar and four hooks is thrown into the muddy waters in hopes of snagging something, any clue that will help investigators solve cases of the missing and murdered.

"The river is easily accessible to dump something and the police clearly say they won't search it. If there is a loved one in there, it makes me feel better knowing that someone is trying their best to search it," said organizer Kyle Kematch.

His sister Amber Guiboche went missing in November 2010. She was last seen in the city's core area getting into an older red truck with bench seats. Five years later, police have no leads. So he searches. 

Kyle Kematch volunteers with Drag the Red, a group that searches the Red River for clues into unsolved cases of missing and murdered indigenous women. (CBC)
​"The hooks are pretty strong; able to pull up different things, many different things. You name it I've probably pulled it out," Kematch said. 

When they do snag something it is dragged up by hand. Most times it's junk like sticks, weeds or garbage that has been discarded in the water. Other times, they find bones. The job of identifying whether they are human or animal falls to Dr. Emily Holland, a forensic anthropologist. 

"If people are going to be out here searching for missing people then I feel it's only fair to offer them learning and training opportunities and to contribute," she explained. "Because any kind of search for the missing people, for any missing people matters." 

On this outing they do snag something. Something heavy. 

Kematch and the others struggle to pull it up, to try to see what it is but in this dark water, it's impossible. Whatever it is snaps and the hooks come out with nothing but a frayed piece of rope. So they circle around and throw the hooks back in.

It snags again. Everyone is quiet. Pulling. Waiting. Finally, it emerges from the water.

"Looks like a car, a piece of a car, maybe the hood," Kematch said as he struggled to pull it onto the boat. The green rusted car hood is placed on the shore where it will wait for police to investigate. "They said if we pull up any remnants of a car, they would dive. This is my second piece... we  let them know, they didn't come." 

Back on the shore, the volunteers regroup, have a smoke break and talk about what other secrets they have found here. They've caught bloody clothes, a suitcase and even bones.

"Turned out it wasn't human from what they said, but the fact of the matter is my hooks can catch bone," Kematch said.

Drag the Red also extends out of the water and onto the riverbanks, where volunteers walk along the shores with rakes and hooks.They search in the bushes and under piles of driftwood. Pull apart worn and weathered bunches of clothes to look for blood.

Searching alongside Indigenous families and friends of the missing, are allies.

"I'm here because this is a very important matter and I think a lot of families want closure," explained a young woman named Ashley, while picking away at a pile of garbage washed up on the shore. 

"More people should be taking this seriously and not just leaving it up to the Indigenous population to take care of it. It would be nice to see the white folks step up a little bit more," she said. 

Back on the boat, Kematch and the others clean up, put away gloves, store the hooks, puddles of water the only evidence of the earlier struggle. 

The boat and the Red River behind them, for now.