Union ups support for community search for missing Indigenous women

Drag the Red cofounder Bernadette Smith (left) and Unifor Indigenous liaison Gina Smoke on the banks of the Red River

A DAY ON THE RIVER ISN’T ANY FUN for the volunteers in Drag the Red community group. But a new custom-made boat will make their efforts to help families find answers about missing loved ones in Manitoba less difficult.

Drag the Red volunteers have relentlessly trolled Winnipeg’s river systems for seven years—ever since the grim discovery of the dead body of Indigenous 15-year-old Tina Fontaine in the river in the fall of 2014. They are looking for remains of missing people or other clues that might help investigators.


Union puts up $50,000

The group ran into boat troubles starting about two years ago. Community fundraisers and donations from Unifor helped them stay afloat. “But it got to the point where they were better off to get a new boat,” says Gina Smoke, who works for Unifor as an Indigenous liaison.

The group and Unifor couldn’t find anything that quite fit the kind of work they were doing, so Unifor put up $50,000 to pay for the design and build of exactly what they needed.

The boat was designed to troll heavy equipment along river bottoms; it comes with a winch that can pull up to 300 pounds.

“It’s one of a kind,” said Bernadette Smith, Drag the Red co-founder and NDP MLA for Point Douglas.

“We don’t think that we’ll ever be able to search this whole river, but we’re doing our part to do what we can to search and ensure that people will think twice about dumping someone in there.”

The new boat is a big help, says Smith, but what remains necessary is more volunteers.

New boat lifts spirits

“We’ve actually been begging and borrowing different boats … so this comes at, like, just the most opportune time ever,” said  Mitch Bourbonniere, one of the lead volunteers with Drag the Red.

Unifor decided to sponsor the project in response to recommendations in the Truth and Reconcilation Commission’s final report, said Joie Warnock, a regional representative for Unifor,

“This is part of putting action behind our commitment to those calls,” she said.

“Families are leading this important campaign and we’re happy to support them,” said Unifor Western Regional Director Gavin McGarrigle, “either with the financial donation or with the volunteer hours that Unifor members and staff have put in during the last two years.”

Something to reinforce community

In addition to looking for evidence to help in police investigations of cold cases, Drag the Red assists search and rescue parties, as they did last year to help find a young man who drowned in a boating accident.

“We’re more than just the boat,” Bourbonniere says, For the families of missing and murdered people, their work shows that the community cares.

“It sends a message to perpetrators out there that using the river, dumping bodies … that’s not going to happen with Drag the Red patrolling the water.

Smith said there’s clearly still a need for Drag the Red.

“This is giving families hope,” she said. “There’s so many families in Manitoba that have missing loved ones and nobody knows where they are, and we will continually be out here searching for them.”

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