09/17/2014 03:05 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 00:56 EDT

Winnipeg police analyzing bones found along Red River by volunteer searchers

WINNIPEG - Volunteers searching for clues about the fate of missing and murdered aboriginal women have found bones along the banks of the Red River in Winnipeg.

Police are now analyzing the remains, found Tuesday evening, but don't know yet if they are human. A blood-splattered pillowcase, a bloody rug and a set of dentures have also been turned over to police following a few tentative searches by the group determined to drag the river for bodies.

For those relatives of missing women, every potential clue unearthed by the river brings an onslaught of emotion. Bernadette Smith — whose sister Claudette Osborne has been missing since 2008 — said everyone immediately wonders if they will finally find out what happened to their loved one.

"With those bones, I've already had calls from family members already saying, 'Do they know if they're human?'" Smith said. "Families are left wondering, 'Were those human remains and were they the remains of my loved one?' It's definitely emotional for all parties involved."

Smith started recruiting volunteers to search the river after the discovery of the body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine last month. Police say her death was a homicide but have yet to make an arrest. The death of the teen, who had run away from foster care, touched a nerve across the country, prompting renewed calls for a national inquiry into almost 1,200 missing and murdered aboriginal women.

The number of volunteers and supporters to "Drag the Red" has swelled into the hundreds. Winnipeg police, who had been silent about the effort, voiced their support Wednesday.

Const. Jason Michalyshen said police have been sharing their expertise about currents with the group and will have a staffed police boat on the river when volunteers go out to dredge.

"We respect the fact that members of the public are taking it upon themselves," he said. "They want answers. They want resolution. They want it as much as we do. This is a community coming together and we absolutely respect that."

He added that police won't actively search the river, but will ensure the safety of volunteers and take any evidence they find. Experts are examining the bones that were discovered, but Michalyshen said it's unclear how significant the find is.

"We're not going to speculate or guess what we're dealing with there," he said. "Those bones have been seized and they're going to be processed."

The discovery of potential evidence after only a few days of searching is vindication for Smith and others who had been that dragging the Red River was futile. Experts say the fast-moving river is swept clean by flooding every spring and any bodies are likely to end up on shore rather than at the bottom.

"We're optimists," she said. "We were always looking on the other side of it. Even if the needle isn't there in the haystack, if we find nothing, then we find nothing. If we do find something, at least we could give some family some answers as to where their loved one is or put our minds to rest."

Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, joined the search effort Wednesday by launching a boat into the river. Those who have lost mothers, wives, sisters and daughters across the country should organize similar searches rather than wait for the federal government to launch an inquiry, Nepinak said.

"It's going to have to be us who do this," Nepinak said in a statement. "No one else will."

The group plans to search the river and its shores until November.