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There were long minutes, in the bush near Duck Bay, about 450 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, when Wilfred and Bernice Catcheway believed they had finally found their daughter.

Jennifer had been wrapped in a tarp, someone said, and there it was: a blue tarp sticking out of the dirt, and inside it a soggy mass, like a rug.

They started digging then, each pull growing a little more frantic. Praying that their 12-year search was finally over. That this latest tip had been right. That the earth would, at last, give back their daughter.

But Jennifer wasn't there.

RCMP units from Winnipeg are now assisting Portage la Prairie RCMP with the search for Jennifer Catcheway.

RCMP units from Winnipeg are now assisting Portage la Prairie RCMP with the search for Jennifer Catcheway.

Now, three weeks after that search, the Catcheway family is once again turning to the media to help spread their message. They have a new ally in their quest; on Thursday, the Manitoba Metis Federation announced it will add fresh resources to help the family, Skownan First Nation members, to keep searching for their daughter.

"We felt upon ourselves as a government we have to do our part to help out in any way we can," MMF president David Chartrand said at a news conference.

That investment means doubling the reward for information on Jennifer's whereabouts to $20,000. The MMF is also helping to fund new posters and put up new billboards across Winnipeg and in the area around Grand Rapids where Jennifer was last known to be when she disappeared on June 19, 2008, her 18th birthday.

The RCMP later declared her case a homicide, though no charges have been laid and her body is still missing. The family isn't focused on seeing an arrest or charges laid, Bernice said, and they will respect the anonymity of anyone who comes forward with tips. All they want is a chance to lay their daughter to rest.

"I just want to bring Jennifer home," Bernice said, her voice trembling as Wilfred stood by her, gently holding her shoulders. "Somebody out there knows where Jennifer is. Somebody last laid their eyes on her. Jennifer didn’t just disappear. Somebody took her. Somebody stole her from us. All we want is to bring her home."

The Manitoba Metis Federation and the family of Jennifer Catcheway announced additional funding measures and a public call for information on her whereabouts. 
(Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

The Manitoba Metis Federation and the family of Jennifer Catcheway announced additional funding measures and a public call for information on her whereabouts. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Ever since Jennifer's disappearance, they have fought for that ending, raising funds to pay for searches that take them around Manitoba every summer. They've lost track of how many trips they've made like the one to Duck Bay three weeks ago, chasing tips they've received. No matter how outrageous each rumour or suggestion, they follow each thread.

So they've searched through the summer heat, and the storms and the cold. When someone told them Jennifer had been buried on an island, they hired someone to take them there on a boat. They've wallowed chest-deep through a swamp, and picked their way through ravines. One summer, Bernice got poison ivy three times.

And they've excavated three dumps in three different areas, digging through the muck for any sign of Jennifer. Once, Bernice saw an object roll out of an excavator bucket and screamed for the operator to stop, thinking for a moment it was a skull; but it was just an old helmet.

The searching is terrible; the not finding is worse.

"It’s so hard when that bucket goes down into the dump and you’re shaking it out to see if Jennifer is there," Bernice said. "It sounds morbid, and it sounds gruesome, but that’s what it is. You’re looking in the dump for your child. You never imagine. If that was your daughter and you're looking in a garbage dump?"

Through it all, they've never given up. The thought has crossed Bernice's mind sometimes: "I’m human," she said. "I have other children who need me. I’ve got 14 grandchildren who need me." But then they think of Jennifer, so full of life the last time they saw her, and they keep moving forward with the search.

Jennifer Catcheway's father, Wilfred, and her older brother Willie Starr (in the red cap), along with her mother Bernice, held an emotional press conference with a public call for help to find Jennifer. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Jennifer Catcheway's father, Wilfred, and her older brother Willie Starr (in the red cap), along with her mother Bernice, held an emotional press conference with a public call for help to find Jennifer. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Willie Starr, Jennifer's older brother, remembers how, as kids, they used to team up to tweak the big old satellite dish at their home to catch enough signal to watch cartoons. "Every day, we think about her," Starr said. "We love her so much. Not a day goes by where we don't think about her, and all the good times we had."

Bernice remembers how Jennifer was a "daddy's girl," how she had Wilfred wrapped around her finger. She recalls how, not long before she went missing, Jennifer boldly walked into a fast-food restaurant in Portage la Prairie to ask for a job and, to her mother's amazement, walked out with an offer to start just days later.

"I was blessed to have her 18 years," Bernice said. "I would have loved to have her more. But those years that I do cherish. I would have loved to see her have children, and get married... she had a lot of dreams, and that was taken from her. She was robbed."

Now, as they remember that young woman with the bright smile and the big dreams, all they want is for the person, or people, who know what happened to Jennifer to help bring their search to an end.

"It’s been 12 years. This has to be over," Bernice said. "This nightmare has to end now... my husband and I will go get her. Leave us a map. Anything. We’ll go get her, wherever she is, we’ll go get her. We’ll bring her home."

Anyone with information about Jennifer Catcheway's disappearance is asked to contact Crime Stoppers at 204-786-8477, or contact Bernice Catcheway on Facebook. The family also welcomes donations to help support their search efforts.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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