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Volunteers hope to bring closure to families of missing and murdered women

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WINNIPEG - A woman whose sister vanished six years ago is leading a group of volunteers who plan to dredge the Red River for missing and murdered aboriginal women.

Bernadette Smith of Winnipeg said she felt compelled to do something after the body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was found wrapped in a bag in the river earlier this month. Smith's sister, Claudette Osborne, 21, disappeared in 2008 and Smith doesn't know if she is alive or dead.

There are about a dozen volunteers and several boats ready to comb the bottom of the river for clues about any women who have vanished, Smith said.

"We don't know if those women could be in that water," Smith said Friday. "We could possibly bring someone's loved one home. We don't know that. We're hoping for that ... We can't sit around in our houses and wonder if there are more bodies in there."

Smith — like many of the families of Canada's 1,200 missing and murdered aboriginal women — is looking for answers and dredging the river is just part of that. As cases go unsolved, Smith and other families continue to search for their loved ones on their own, hoping to find something investigators have missed that might bring some closure.

Experts say the chances of finding more bodies in the Red River are slim, but Smith said her group isn't deterred and hopes to be out on the water by the end of September.

"We're going to at least try and see how difficult it is," she said. "We're sure it's going to be more difficult in certain spots but we have to do something. We can't just not do anything."

Fontaine's body was found Aug. 17, just over a week after she had been reported missing. She had been in Winnipeg less than a month and had run away from foster care. Police aren't saying how she died but are treating her death as a homicide. No arrests have been made.

The young girl's death has touched a nerve across the country and reignited calls for a national public inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women. An RCMP report released this spring found aboriginal women make up 4.3 per cent of the Canadian population, yet account for 16 per cent of female homicides and 11.3 per cent of missing women.

For Smith, the discovery of Fontaine's body brings pain bubbling to the surface again. After organizing searches and countless vigils, Smith's family is no closer to finding out what happened to Osborne.

"It's very tough," she said. "You don't ever give up hope, but we're realistic and know that the possibility of her not being alive is also there."

Winnipeg police declined to provide anyone to talk about dredging the river, but said it's not something they are considering right now.

Geologist Marc Pelletier, who specializes in oceanography and dredging, said the volunteers aren't likely to find any human remains. Since the Red River floods every spring, the floor is swept clean, he said.

Bodies also tend to eventually become buoyant, so searchers would be better off scouring the riverbanks, Pelletier suggested.

"There is very little chance of finding something on the bottom," said Pelletier, who is based in Quebec. "If they try to drag the bottom with different tools, they will probably find everything but a body — garbage, tree trunks — anything. It's not a good way to look for a body in the river."

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