Meet the volunteers who search for missing and murdered Indigenous women in WinnipegStories of Indigenous-led activism on the streets and waterways of Winnipeg, Canada
In 2014, the body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was found in Winnipeg's Red River. When public outcry about her death quickly subsided, Indigenous people in the area decided to take action.
“I know the police can’t put resources everywhere, but there are so many lo ose ends with the issue of missing Aboriginal women and it doesn’t seem to be getting a lot of priority,” says Bob Geddes, a volunteer with Bear Clan, a volunteer organization that patrols the streets of the city’s North End.
Tired of being the casualties of institutional inaction, Bear Clan and Drag The Red (a group that drags the Red River, looking for clues about missing and murdered women) work every day to keep their communities safe and accounted for.
This River, a short documentary, tells the story of the devastating experience of searching for a loved one who didn't come home.
In anticipation of the doc's release, the National Film Board created an Instagram account, What Brings Us Here, to highlight Bear Clan and Drag the Red volunteers, many of whom have missing loved ones.
“I’m from the North End, I grew up there, I’ve lived there my whole life. A lot of the girls who are missing or murdered are my friends. We have no closure. . It really got to me when Tina Fontaine was murdered. I thought ‘How could somebody just take a little girl and discard her in the river like she was garbage?’ She wasn’t garbage.” . @KimKostiuk Drag the Red volunteer Bear Clan Patrol volunteer Photo: @janinekropla
Oct 17, 2016 at 7:25pm PDT
Alison Cox’s mother was murdered when Alison was just a baby. After being adopted into a non-Indigenous family and moving far away from her community for many years, Alison decided to come back and help with the search.
“When you’re a child of someone who’s been murdered and you start hearing all of these stories of murder in your community, you become traumatized all over again, like, you just keep reliving the trauma even though it’s not your story. There are some little pieces inside that just spring open once you start listening. . I was becoming very depressed because of the number of traumas that were being retold in the newspapers, on tv, and I was starting to get really sick, very ashamed, very lost, feeling suicidal. These were all things that I went through as I was trying to learn about the story of my mother’s murder, and hearing all those stories reminded me.” . Alison Cox Red Robe Drummer Photo: @janinekropla
Melvin Pangman found his nephew in the river. “We hooked him and we pulled his shirt out. And the police still didn’t put divers down looking for him.”
“That river – I never paid attention to it, until my family member went into it. I was probably like many other Winnipeggers that just looks at the river and think ‘oh it’s nice, it’s a beautiful thing’. When you lose somebody and you know they’re in there, it’s a completely different feeling. It’s very lonesome. You feel it when you’re out there searching. That’s what I noticed the most is that feeling, of lonesomeness. . I don’t know how I could have dealt with things if we hadn’t found our family member. If he was still in that water today, I don’t know how I’d deal with not knowing, because I was just so overwhelmed by it.” . Melvin Pangman Drag the Red volunteer Photo: @markreimer
Kyle Kematch is one of the co-founders of Drag the Red. He quit his job and drags the river full time in search of his sister, Amber, who went missing in 2010.
“My sister Amber has been missing since 2009. The fact of the matter is she’s no longer with us no more. She would have contacted somebody. She was smart. . Sometimes I can’t sleep at night. But if she is in the river, I want to get her and using these hooks, I got a good chance. It’s like a lottery, there is that chance.” . Kyle Kematch Drag the Red Ground Co-Founder Photo: @markreimer
Some volunteers may not have lost loved ones, but they have other reasons for helping out. Aaron Stevens and Scott Osesky credit volunteering with Bear Clan for their continued sobriety.
“I don’t like to brag, I’m trying to stay humble, but I’ve already saved two young men this summer because of the Bear Clan. There was a young man who was trying to jump off the Salter Bridge. Another young man was holding him and they were just crying. I knew right away, like, this is too serious. I had to grab them both and I just threw them over the rail and into the ground. . They say it’s like you get some sort of chemical reaction when you give back. I used to torment the North End with being bad, you know? To turn around and be good, it’s way better.” . Aaron Stevens Bear Clan Patrol volunteer Photo: @karen.asher
“I’ve had a shaky past. I like to give back to my community now. I’ve got three years and four months of sobriety now. I was having a hard time when I joined the Bear Clan. I had just been released from prison and I was kind of up against a wall. I was thinking of going back to the biker lifestyle – I figured that I couldn’t make it in the real world. Walking with the Bear Clan changed my mind, brought me back to reality and I started coming out every night. I’m here five nights a week. . I grew up on these streets. I know the people in the neighbourhood – the good, the bad, the ugly. And they know me. When we’re out walking I get a lot of respect from gang members. I feel like the Bear Clan keeps everybody safe, and I’m there to keep Bear Clan safe.” . Scott Osesky Bear Clan Patrol volunteer Photo: @markreimer
Many volunteers, like Darryl Contois, feel an intense connection to the work. They feel compelled to search for answers and find clues, not matter how gruelling the work.
“Last spring, I went to bed on a Friday night and I heard crying in my sleep and I asked what was wrong and a girl said ‘I want to come home can you come and get me?’ and she told me her name. She told me she was in Kenora. She said, ‘I’m missing.’ . I got up that morning and I saw her story on Facebook. She had walked into the bush that Friday night and that was the last they saw of her. They searched all day on Saturday. I wasn’t able to get there until Sunday, with the Bear Clan.” . Darryl Contois Bear Clan Patrol volunteer Photo: @janinekropla
Bernadette Smith founded Drag the River in response to the reaction she got from the police after her sister, Claudette Osborne, went missing in 2008.
“My sister was an Aboriginal woman, she had a drug addiction, and she had a criminal record. We think all of these things played a role in the way her case was handled,” she says.
“The work we’re doing with Drag the Red is a way to ensure that our loved ones aren’t forgotten. And to let the public know that these people are valued: they’re mothers, they’re daughters, sisters. They are loved and they are missed. We won’t stop until we bring them home and the violence stops.” . Bernadette Smith Drag the Red Founder Photo of Jessica Chislom by @janinekropla
All this work — hours spent combing through river banks and side streets, the struggle of making connections with the North End community, the pushing back against the systems that don’t hear them — all of it is done in the hope that everyone can come back home, says Kyle Kematch.