12/07/2014 10:00 EST | Updated 02/06/2015 05:59 EST

Manitoba collects toys, hosts dinner for families of missing, murdered women

WINNIPEG - For Bernadette Smith, Christmas used to be a time for large family gatherings, lots of food and the exchange of gifts.

But since her sister Claudette Osborne disappeared in 2008, Smith finds it hard to focus on anything other than her sibling's empty chair.

"It's hard to see other families gathering together and sharing those special times you can't share with your loved one," Smith says.

"It should be an uplifting time of year, but there is no celebration when you don't have your loved one home — when they've been murdered, you don't have answers or they're still out there missing."

There are hundreds who share Smith's pain this time of year. With about 1,200 missing or murdered aboriginal women across Canada, families are left mourning in a void, while often struggling to find money for food and gifts for children left behind.

Manitoba is one of the provinces with the highest number of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada. Every year, a few more are added to the list and every year Nahanni Fontaine reaches out to a few more bereaved families.

Fontaine, a special adviser on aboriginal women's issues for the Manitoba government, has organized a Christmas party for the last few years to make the season a little easier for families.

There is a turkey buffet, a Christmas tree, volunteers dress up as elves and a special appearance from Santa Claus. On a table by the tree is a reminder of those who continue to be mourned — framed pictures of every missing and murdered woman.

The event began a few years ago when Fontaine received three calls in the span of a week from three different families asking for help. All three had no money for food, let alone gifts. One woman talked about how her son had tried to commit suicide the day before.

Fontaine, who has received a Governor General's award for her work on the issue, said she felt compelled to do something.

"I see just depths of sadness and loneliness and longing for loved ones who have been murdered or are missing at this time of the year.

"It's an incredibly difficult time and then it's compounded by the financial constraints."

The first year she organized the party, there were 40 children. This year, there will be 70. Many are mourning the loss of their mother. Others, the loss of an aunt or grandmother.

Fontaine solicits donations throughout the year to ensure each child has at least one gift to unwrap. She accepts everything from gift cards and cash to baking and diapers.

"We all want the best, even in the depths of poverty, at this time of year. You want the best for your children. You want to be able to give them a little bit of joy or happiness," she says.

"Our people want those same things as well."

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson says the whole affair costs the government about $2,000. He says it's worth it to help some who might be tempted by drugs or alcohol to cope with their grief.

"It takes away a few tears for a while anyway," he said. "The kids get spoiled for a few hours. That's a good thing."

For Smith, the gathering is about more than gifts and turkey. It's a place to draw much-needed strength from others who understand what it is like to live with unanswered questions.

"It's an incredible sense of support and family to be able to come together at that time of year."

Osborne was 21 when she disappeared, leaving behind four children. Smith doesn't know if her sister is alive or dead. But she never gives up hope that some day Osborne will come home.

"It's tough because we don't have any answers. We just keep searching," she says. "We make sure we keep her memory alive ... so (her children) know their mom was a person.

"She had hopes, she had dreams and she loved Christmas."