Bernadette Smith, whose sister Claudette Osborne went missing seven years ago, spearheaded the search last year after the body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was found in the river wrapped in a bag.
Volunteers went out on boats with hooks that combed the bottom of the river that flows through Winnipeg, hoping to dig up clues about women who have vanished.
This year, Smith said the operation is more sophisticated. The dragging bars are better made and Smith has bought a boat out of her own pocket.
The group is also fundraising for another boat and rain gear through a GoFundMe webpage.
But the intent is the same — to get answers for the loved ones of those who have gone missing or been murdered. Last year, Smith said seven bodies were pulled from the water.
"That's the highest ever in a year — four while we were dragging," Smith said.
"We weren't the ones that pulled the bodies out but we felt like our dragging efforts had something to do with those bodies being dislodged and those loved ones being brought home."
Relatives of these missing women often feel helpless, Smith said.
When her sister went missing, Smith said a busload of volunteers gathered to search for her because police didn't seem to be doing enough. Years later, Smith is still searching for answers.
Getting out on the river gives many a sense of purpose and community, she said. It shows that the lives of the estimated 1,200 missing and murdered aboriginal women have meaning.
"It's very empowering to be doing this kind of work," she said. "It's getting people up off the couch to say I can make a difference."
For Kyle Kematch, like so many of the searchers, the work is personal. His sister, Amber Guiboche, went missing without a trace in 2010. Kematch quit his job last year to devote all his time to dragging the river.
Every time his hooks hit a snag, Kematch's heart leaps into his throat. As much as he wants to bring closure to grieving families, "your mind starts going all over the place," he said.
"I pray that I don't find her in there."
The group wants Winnipeg police to do more than just monitor the volunteers from a boat and actually join in the search. So far, police have declined, saying only that they will support the group "from a safety standpoint."
Both Smith and Kematch said they will continue going out on the river every year for as long as it takes, with or without the police.
"We know that Tina Fontaine's body wasn't the first one found in the river," Smith said. "We don't know how many are in there. We're going to continue as long as we can."Suggest a correction