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On Winnipeg’s Red River with the Searchers Looking for Their Missing Relatives

Nine bodies have been found in the river in the last year, and the Drag the Red volunteers are doing what police won't—actually searching below the murky water.

by Hilary Beaumont
Sep 14 2015, 7:20pm

Kyle Kematch drives a boat on the Red River. Stills from 'Searchers: Drag the Red'

Kyle Kematch pulls the brim of his white baseball cap over his eyes to block the camera.

We're sitting at a sheltered picnic table in the midst of a sudden downpour, eating homemade chili and bannock at a feast organized by Drag the Red—a Winnipeg-based volunteer group that searches the swirling, murky waters of the Red River for the bodies of Indigenous women and men who have vanished.

Kyle, one of the organizers of Drag the Red, lost his sister five years ago, and my question about her provokes tears.

"Her name is Amber Rose Marie Guiboche," he tells me. Her case is still unsolved.

A year ago, he and Bernadette Smith, who also lost her sister, started trawling the river and scanning its banks after the body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was pulled out of the muddy water. Since then, the small team has ballooned into more than 100 volunteers who look for evidence and remains, and hold vigils for lost loved ones.

In the last year, nine bodies have been found in the river, including Fontaine's. Two of them were discovered in July alone. Though Drag the Red hasn't found a body yet, the searchers believe their DIY equipment—a rope that pulls a heavy bar with hooks along the river bed—has helped loosen remains that were stuck at the bottom.

Across Canada, missing and murdered Indigenous women are making headlines, and their families are accusing police of not doing enough. Drag the Red has taken it upon themselves to do what could be considered police work. They don't receive any government funding and local law enforcement refuses to help them, insisting the river is too dangerous for dive teams.

Searchers: Drag the Red

Since 1980, more than 1,200 Indigenous women have been murdered or reported missing in Canada. In June, the RCMP released an updated report on the national crisis, announcing they had reduced the number of unsolved cases from 225 to 204. But in the year since their last update, 11 more Indigenous women disappeared, and 32 more were killed.

Kyle hopes his sister is alive and well. But, he says, "if she is in there, I want to get her back."

He remembers Amber as an outgoing party girl.

"She was only 20, she liked to have fun, she liked to go out and meet new people. She was very nice. Very, very nice girl."

Kyle and Amber bonded after the deaths of both their mother and sister. In 1999, their sister overdosed, and the same year, their mother jumped off one of the bridges that crosses the Red River.

"We went through hard times in '99. That's why we stuck together," he says of Amber.

The two were always talking on the phone and hanging out. But almost five years ago, Amber vanished.

She was last spotted on November 10, 2010, getting into a red pickup truck near the intersection of William Avenue and Isabel Street, which Kyle describes as a rough, low-income neighborhood.

"Women sell their bodies over there," Kyle says of the area where she was last seen.

Police told his family Amber was a sex worker.

"Even if she was, she's a human being," he says.

Police described her as a Caucasian woman with a slight build. She was wearing a white hoodie, skinny jeans, a black belt, and pink-and-white tennis shoes when she disappeared.

A year ago, Winnipeg police released a sketch of someone they think is connected to Amber's case: A 30-year-old white man with short reddish hair, light red or blond stubble, and hairy arms. He was wearing a camo baseball cap at the time the 20-year-old went missing, police said.

But Kyle says police haven't been in touch with his family much about Amber's case. Their last update was that her name was spray-painted on a wall in the Toronto area, but they wouldn't say exactly where.

When I ask him what he thinks happened to her, he replies, "Someone she knows. I had a big speech with her a couple weeks before about how you can't trust nobody. Nobody, don't trust nobody."

Out on the water, Kyle's mind visits dark places.

We're in the middle of the river, dragging hooks along the clay bottom when suddenly there's a tug on the line.

It's not tough to pull up. Kyle inspects the hooks: A plastic bag and a pair of panties—not an unusual find for the draggers.

"Why is there so much underwear in the river?" I ask.

"I don't know," he replies. "Yeah, your mind goes crazy. Is there a female down there? I don't know."

"Where does your mind go when you find a pair of underwear?" I ask.

"Come home if you're there," he answers. "Please let me help you. Let me help you."

The searchers often spot eagles overhead, which they think of as watching over them. Police boats also watch them, but don't help with the search.

"I wish they would actually do it themselves," Kyle told me, the first time I met him on a dock at the edge of the river. "There's lots of evidence in there and that's a fact."

Staff Sgt. Rob Riffle, who is in charge of the Winnipeg Police dive unit and river patrol, told VICE they won't help "because it's not a good allocation of our resources.

"Basically it's like looking for a needle in a haystack when you don't even know there's a needle there," he said.

Pulling up on the rope after feeling something in the water

When a body falls into the river, it fills with water and sinks, Riffle explained. Within a few days in the warmer months, it decomposes and gas bubbles form, which make the body float to the surface. Eventually it will sink to the bottom again, where it breaks down until there is nothing left but bone.

None of the bodies that were found in the last year were found at the bottom of the river, he said: They floated to the surface, where they were pulled out.

Riffle contends that skeletal remains at the bottom of the river are impossible to find with hooks or by divers.

"It's black water diving here, so [the chances] for a hook to find something is so remote, it's not even in the realm of a lottery win to find something."

The waters of the Red River are only about 35 feet deep, but the fast-moving currents stir up the clay river bed, making it impossible to see past the surface.

When the dive team is in the river, visibility is zero, so they search by feel. It's inherently dangerous—there's always a possibility of a diver getting caught on something, or having their umbilical cut, Riffle told VICE. That's why they can't risk diving.

But he says they support the draggers in other ways.

"We support them with safety initiatives. We make sure they're doing their dragging safely. They also walk [along the] riverbanks, so we're supporting them in the sense that we've given them information on where there may be, where collection points are within the river, based on our expertise as the dive unit. And we're in control of making sure that they're doing their searches in a safe manner. That's our support."

When I first met Kyle at a dock on the edge of the river, he emptied a bag of items the draggers had pulled up—mostly clothing, especially women's underwear. They found one pair with blood on them, and another pair covered in maggots.

"Those maggots are feeding off something," Kyle said.

If they find clothing with a distinctive detail or pattern, they post it on Facebook, hoping someone might recognize it.

When they pull up something they believe is significant, they try not to touch it with bare hands, and they dry it out before placing it in a plastic bag. Although, from what I witnessed on the boat, their evidence-gathering techniques are inconsistent.

If they find something significant, they hand it to police—even though officers reject some items.

When a relative goes missing without a trace, an innate urge kicks in to search.

In 2008, when 21-year-old Claudette Osborne went missing, that's what her family did.

Her mother, Brenda Osborne, used a shovel to dig up ditches and search the sides of highways. And in 2014, wondering how many bodies were in the river, Claudette's sister Bernadette Smith co-founded Drag the Red.

She wondered whether police would have found Tina Fontaine had they not been looking for the body of Faron Hall, known as the "Homeless Hero," who had rescued people from drowning in the river.

Hall, who became homeless after his sister and mother died, slept in a tent on the banks of the Red River. Hall went missing after his father died, and he attended the funeral. Police found Hall's body in the river on August 17, 2014.

A group of searchers lines up.

"Would they have found her was the question," Bernadette told VICE. "We were like, well, how many others were in that river, you know, and we wanted them to do it, and they didn't. They said they wouldn't. So I put it on Facebook and then a family member, Kyle Kematch said, 'I'm in, let's do it.'"

Claudette was last seen on July 25, 2008.

Her last known location was the Lincoln Motor Hotel in Winnipeg at 6 AM that morning, but in 2010 investigators confirmed her last known location was about four kilometers [2.5 miles] away, near Selkirk Avenue and King Street, at 6:30 AM.

Claudette called her sister Tina and left a message saying a truck driver was being pushy and she felt unsafe. She wanted her sister to pick her up. But her sister didn't have minutes on her phone and only heard the message after Claudette went missing.

On a Facebook group dedicated to the memory of the mother of four, friends and family remembered her hazel eyes, beautiful smile, and quick wit.

Her fiancé, Matthew Bushby, posted that she delivered a baby girl instead of the boy they expected, and they had to think of a name. When she couldn't decide, he said, "Patience, Claudette." She then chose the name Patience. "Why? Because I don't have any patience," she told him.

Patience was two weeks old when her mother went missing.

It took ten days for police to look at Claudette's case after she was reported missing, Bernadette told VICE. She said they only looked at her case because the family pressured them.

Bernadette believes Winnipeg police didn't treat her sister's case the same way they do when a white resident goes missing.

"There was one case last summer where they actually went door to door, knocking on doors. When my sister went missing, that wasn't the same response, you know. There was no police knocking door to door and asking if, you know, they had information, or they had seen anything."

According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, "Police have failed to adequately prevent and protect Indigenous women and girls from killings and disappearances, extreme forms of violence, and have failed to diligently and promptly investigate these acts."

"I definitely think there is a double standard when it comes to Indigenous people," Bernadette said. "And I think that's been created through the history of Canada and the government and policies that have been put in place. You know, women are treated less than, and if you are Indigenous, that's even more so. Because you know, we're considered disposable, like no one's gonna miss us, or care about us, when in reality, we all have families that care about us."

Kyle agrees that police don't treat every missing persons case equally. They dedicated more resources to the recent case of missing white woman Thelma Krull, who disappeared July 11, than they have to cases of missing Indigenous people, he said.

"I think they're not doing enough for Aboriginal people," Kyle says of police.

Drag the Red volunteers helped search for Krull. He believes police set the bar high with their search for her.

"They could do more, they could do more, they showed everybody they could do more. They searched for that woman for a long time, and they're still searching for her."

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