POLITICS

Volunteers wind down ground search along Red River for missing, murdered women

10/06/2014 12:04 EDT | Updated 12/06/2014 05:59 EST
WINNIPEG - Volunteers searching along the banks of the Red River for clues about the fate of missing and murdered aboriginal women are winding down their search as temperatures drop and leaves blanket the muddy ground.

A group has been searching along the river in Winnipeg ever since the body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was pulled from the water in August. Searchers have found bones, which turned out to be animal remains, along with a blood-splattered pillowcase, a bloody rug, a set of dentures and clothing.

Anything suspicious has been turned over to police.

Bernadette Smith, whose sister Claudette Osborne disappeared six years ago, said the ground search is becoming too difficult.

"We're dealing with lots of mud due to the rain," she said. "The leaves have been a big hindrance. You have to move them all out of the way. It's been really hard and it's taken us a long time."

Volunteers will continue dredging the river for another few weeks as the water level drops, Smith said. They're still hoping to uncover anything from a distinctive piece of clothing to a body that might bring closure to a family searching for a missing loved one.

Since the discovery of Fontaine's body, the group has attracted hundreds of supporters from around the world and dozens who have painstakingly scoured the ground and the river. Smith said the search has kept the conversation about missing and murdered aboriginal women alive.

"All of our people in Canada are important and we can't just become desensitized or complacent that people are being murdered or going missing," she said. "We should be alarmed about that and worried because these numbers continue to increase."

Fontaine's body was found Aug. 17, just over a week after she had been reported missing. She had been in Winnipeg less than a month and had run away from foster care. Police aren't saying how she died but are treating her death as a homicide. No arrests have been made.

The young girl's death touched a nerve across the country and reignited calls for a national public inquiry into almost 1,200 missing and murdered aboriginal women. The Assembly of First Nations has called for an independent investigation into how police handled Fontaine's case after it was discovered that two officers came across the girl after she was reported missing but did not take her into custody.

Police say they will be doing their annual sweep of the Red River on their own later this month once the locks open and the water level drops. Const. Jason Michalyshen said the patrol is not new and officers will search riverbanks that have been submerged for most of the spring and summer.

"They'll be looking for anything suspicious, whether that be objects or anything that shouldn't be there," he said. "This isn't something new by any stretch."

When the snow melts away next spring, the volunteer group plans to resume its own search, Smith said. The effort has brought the community together and empowered families who felt helpless, she added.

"We were tired of not doing anything and waiting for somebody else to do it," she said. "We're really hoping to have the width of the river covered with boats so that we can do one sweep and cover more ground."