New ‘one of a kind’ boat will help Drag the Red continue search for missing in Winnipeg rivers

A grassroots community initiative aimed at helping families find answers about missing loved ones in Manitoba has a brand new tool to help them search.

Drag the Red’s new custom-made boat was launched on the Red River at the foot of the Harry Lazarenko Bridge in Winnipeg on Monday.

“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 putting someone in there.”

Smith’s sister Claudette Osborne, 21, vanished on July 25, 2008, just weeks after giving birth to a baby girl. She was last seen near Selkirk Avenue and King Street in Winnipeg. Her case remains open.

The grim discovery of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine’s body in the Red River was a catalyst for the formation of Drag the Red in the fall of 2014. The 100-pound teen was found wrapped in a bag weighted down by rocks near the Alexander Docks off Waterfront Drive in August of that year.

Ever since, volunteers have trolled Winnipeg’s river systems for remains of missing people or other clues that might help investigators.

Then, the group ran into boat troubles starting about two years ago. At first, repairs were in part funded through donations from Unifor, the national private sector union where Gina Smoke acts as an Indigenous liaison.

Drag the Red cofounder Bernadette Smith, left, and Unifor Indigenous liaison Gina Smoke, right, on the banks of the Red River Monday for the launch of the new boat. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

But the recurring issues called for a more robust response, so Smoke approached the union about funding the purchase of a new boat.

“It got to the point where … they were better off to get a new boat,” Smoke said.

The group and Unifor couldn’t find anything that quite fit the kind of work they were doing, so Unifor commissioned a custom made boat. Unifor put up $50,000 for the purchase and build.

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

That was important, Smith says, because when the previous dragging system would get snagged bad, volunteers would have to cut the line. That’s no longer going to be necessary.

Drag the Red volunteers take the new boat for a spin on the Red River Monday. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

What remains necessary is more volunteers, said Smith.

Due to COVID-19, a maximum of five people are allowed on the boat at any one time, and they must go through some training first.

The initiative is also accepting donations, which Smith said will go toward fuel costs, equipment, life jackets and regular maintenance.

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.”