It’s a sunny fall day, but unmistakably the winter weaves its way through the wind. The sun is reflected in tiny little sparkles off the muddy Red River in Winnipeg, Manitoba. With this serene view in the distance, a mass of oak leaves under my feet, I am waiting for a group of searchers to arrive.
The land that surrounds this body of water has deep history rooted in Anishinaabe, Cree, Métis, and Dakota cultures, stories, and movements over thousands of years. Just like my Gitxsan people and the S̄kw̄xwú7mesh I grew close to, the Indigenous people of this land used the lakes and rivers as highways to travel for hunting and fishing, ceremony and feasting. The prairie territory I am standing on was abundant with great herds of buffalo; the boreal forest also provided shelter, water, wood, fish, and meat. And like other Indigenous lands, the land the Red River flows through is thick with a colonial history and rife with rebellion and battles that are spoken keenly of today. Just like my Gitxsan people in our lands, the Anishinaabe, the Cree, the Métis, and the Dakota are still here, rich in culture and resistance.
It was a foreign land to me, far from the mountains and the ocean, the salmon, and the teachings I grew up with. Still, I was back where I first found out I’d be a mom, where I’d shift from a transient young adult to someone who was on an unmistakable trajectory: to tell stories of Indigenous people with all the care and love they deserved. That new path meshed inextricably with motherhood as I strived to share with my little boy that we as Indigenous people matter, that Indigenous women like his mom are loved, and that we will never give up.
There in Winnipeg, in late 2015, I met some of the most creative, determined, and unwavering family members of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG). One of them was an Anishinaabe and Métis woman named Bernadette Smith, who, disillusioned by police efforts to find her sister and horrified when the body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was pulled out of the Red River, took matters into her own hands. In hopes of finding justice for her own family and others who were devastated by not knowing what happened to their loved ones, she co-founded Drag the Red, a group that coordinates volunteers searching the Red River for the remains of missing people.
Smith’s sister Claudette Osborne-Tyo was a 21-year-old mother of four when she vanished. She was last seen at Winnipeg’s Lincoln Motor Hotel, now called Four Crowns Inn, on McPhillips Street, and after making a number of calls on various pay phones, made her last call at Selkirk Avenue and King Street on July 25, 2008. Fifteen days earlier she’d given birth to her fourth child. Smith says she was disappointed with how police handled her sister’s disappearance. It was 10 days before they even started to investigate. Osborne-Tyo had made a call on July 24 to her sister Tina Osborne and left a message saying she needed a ride home because she was in bad company. But Tina didn’t get the message until she added minutes to her phone, two days later.
Even after that evidence, Smith says, she needed to get political and put pressure on police to act. “My sister had a criminal record, she was on the street, she was Aboriginal, and she was a woman. She had all these things against her,” Smith tells me in an interview in Winnipeg for a 2015 article. Osborne-Tyo’s body has never been found. “My sister has been missing for years. We have no answers,” Smith says. The Winnipeg Police Service’s Project Devote—an integrated task force made up of Winnipeg police and the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police)—was investigating the case, and Smith says she spoke to its officers about once a month, but the family had heard of no new information since 2010.
Smith, like many others across Canada, was stunned by the news in 2014 that 15-year-old Tina Fontaine’s body had been found at the bottom of the Red River, wrapped in a duvet cover and plastic and weighted down by rocks. Learning about her death while I was in Toronto terrified me. Tina’s death reignited calls for a national inquiry, calls that were instrumental in finally making it happen. But when I moved to Winnipeg, the reality of this little girl, discarded into the river, became all the more devastating.
On one of my walks through our North End Winnipeg neighborhood near the Alexander Docks, I came across a striking memorial. Directly in front of me was draped red cloth curling around a square alcove in a chain-link fence. White wooden chairs with pillows sat carefully placed around cement blocks that worked as shelves for a stuffed yellow Minion, a Barbie doll, and rocks painted green and purple with the words family, joy, play, home, and live on them. Reading the word live made my stomach sink as I realized it was a memorial for Tina Fontaine, the girl who was barely beginning her youth when she died. I also knew that this little girl may have been related to my son—his dad’s family are, like Tina, from the Sagkeeng community and related to the Fontaines. It was another reminder of how connected so many of us Indigenous people in Canada are to each other, and how much more cutting these brutal deaths are to us.
Tina was in and out of government care from the time she was an infant as her parents struggled with trauma. Her young mother also grew up in foster care. While Tina had a period of stability with her great-aunt Thelma Favel in Powerview–Pine Falls (next to Sagkeeng First Nation), all of that changed for her in 2011, at 12 years old, when she learned that her father had been beaten to death by two men. Tina’s life started to fall apart: She skipped school and frequently ran away from home as her aunt pleaded with her to get help.
A 2019 report authored by the Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth said victim services failed to set up the counseling that Tina needed. “In the nearly three years of involvement since the homicide death of Tina’s father, victim services neither met directly with Tina nor did they arrange a single counseling session for her to help her manage her loss and grief,” the report says. In April 2014, concerned that Tina was experimenting with drugs and speaking with adult men on the internet, Favel asked Manitoba’s Child and Family Services to help. The only options available were hotels and temporary shelters. In the three weeks before she disappeared on August 8, Tina was reported missing four times.
Outrage over her death rippled across the country. As I refresh my memory with her story now, looking at all the murals of her, thinking about the memorials and all the online tributes that have been posted, I can’t help but think: Where was all that support, all that love, all that care, all that attention for her, before she died? When we see an Indigenous girl struggling in the school system, on the street, and in other public spaces, what goes through our minds? Rarely do people know how to help. And a large part of the problem is the lack of resources available—including counseling (and help setting it up and getting to it), support for parents who are struggling (including income support, housing, and counseling), and adequate supportive housing for teens and young adults. But another part of the problem is the way the public has been trained socially and psychologically to blame Indigenous girls and women for their struggles and deaths, rather than understanding the impact and the depths of colonization.
When Raymond Cormier, 57, was acquitted by a jury of the second-degree murder of Tina in February 2018, there was more than outrage; there was fury, deep sadness, and emptiness. Cormier did not have to answer any questions in court, but seeing him on a Canadian Broadcast Corp. (CBC) segment talking about how he gave her drugs and how Tina suggested to him that she wanted “to play” when she asked him for a place to stay when she was homeless makes me feel sick to my stomach. She was a child facing multiple traumas, she was in government care, she had little family, she was in deep grief, she was extremely vulnerable—yet this man positioned himself as a victim of a child’s desire. In 2019, the Winnipeg police told the CBC that while her case is still open, they are not currently pursuing any suspects.
After the discovery of Tina’s body, family members of MMIWG began searching the river and the shore relentlessly for other remains or any other evidence. Tina’s was one of seven bodies that were pulled out of the Red River in 2014. Bernadette Smith believes that Drag the Red efforts contributed to four of them being found.
On that sunny but chilly fall day in 2015, I meet up with Smith on one of her Drag the Red searches. From the picnic table where we are sitting, Smith looks to the east where a fence now runs along the Red, a look of determination on her face. “Neither police nor RCMP responded to my call to drag the Red, but Kyle Kematch, whose sister Amber Guiboche disappeared from Winnipeg in 2010 at the age of 20, came forward and said, ‘Let’s do it ourselves.’ After that, a team came together to drag the Red.”
As gulls squeal over our heads, Kematch tells me they are not looking specifically for any one demographic. Drag the Red looks for everybody. But he tells me that Tina was the inspiration for this mission. “She was very young, and there are a lot of vulnerable people out there. The fact is this is an easy route to get rid of somebody,” Kematch says.
Squinting his eyes toward the river, Kematch tells me this is where his sister Amber Guiboche might be. She disappeared from Winnipeg on November 10, 2010, five days after she turned 20 years old. Kematch believes her case was not seen as a priority because she led a high-risk lifestyle. On August 12, 2014, investigators asked the public for help in identifying someone that may know what happened to her. “She was small like Tina, you know,” her brother says. “If she is in there, it’s just like, she can’t get buried [at a funeral], she can’t be pronounced dead or nothing like that.” This lack of closure is what so many family members have told me is the most gut-wrenching for them. “If we find some sort of evidence, I don’t hope to find her in there, it’s just got to be done, we need to find my sister.”
Smith says it’s been hard to fulfill Drag the Red’s original intention: to get police eyes on missing-person and unsolved-murder cases. “We’ve certainly seen that for non-Indigenous people. This summer  a non-Indigenous woman went missing and police set up a command post, they dove in retention ponds. We don’t see that type of attention on our cases. We hear from loved ones saying, ‘Why don’t we get that type of response? ’”
Smith says Drag the Red is not just doing the physical work, but also trying to change policies that seem riddled with racism. “It’s very disheartening to know that there is a two-tiered system. We are all human beings, we all matter, we all have people that love us, and we all want to be treated the same,” Smith says.
Adapted with permission of the publisher from the book Unbroken: My Fight for Survival, Hope, and Justice for Indigenous Women and Girls, written by Angela Sterritt and published by Greystone Books on May 30, 2023. Available wherever books are sold, including from independent bookstores, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.
Angela Sterritt is an award-winning journalist, writer, and artist. Sterritt has worked as a journalist for close to twenty years and has been with the CBC since 2003. She currently works with CBC Vancouver as a host and television, radio, and digital reporter. She is a proud member of the Gitxsan Nation and lives on xwməθkwəy´ əm (Musqueam), Sk-wx-wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlílwətaəə (Tsleil-Waututh) territories in Vancouver, Canada.