As a government inquiry compiled its landmark report on the epidemic of violence against Canada’s Indigenous women, Bernadette Smith and a group of volunteers continued what they have done for years – scouring Manitoba’s Red River for human remains.
Since 2014, Smith and her team at the Drag the Red initiative have used a small motor boat to drag the murky waters in the faint hope providing closure to grieving families.
This week the commission’s 1,200-page final report concluded that the murder and disappearance of Indigenous women and girls in Canada constituted a “race-based genocide” and laid out more than 200 policy recommendations for future action.
But Smith and her team have no plans to end their work: tragedy continues to befall Indigenous families across the country. More than 130 Indigenous women and girls have gone missing or been killed since the inquiry began its work in 2016, according to a CBC News database.
“Yes, the inquiry is important work. And yes, it’s important for families to have their voices heard,” said Smith. “But at the same time, it’s important to start addressing this now and to stop the violence from happening.”
The commission’s report was officially released on Monday at an emotional ceremony in Gatineau, Quebec, which brought together Indigenous leaders, families of murdered women and the survivors of abuse.
Its pages chronicled generations of trauma against Indigenous peoples, including the disproportionate gender-based violence experienced by women and girls throughout the country.
The gravity of discriminatory policies against Indigenous peoples meant that calling it “genocide” was an “inescapable conclusion”, said the chief commissioner, Marion Buller.
The report stressed that its recommendations were legally binding, but some of those on the front lines of the crisis – whose work spurred calls for an inquiry – are asking whether this time will be any different.
Grassroots organizations across the country have long advocated for changes in policing, child welfare and education, but their calls have fallen on deaf ears.
“There’s a long list of reports and recommendations that could help us and they just sit on the shelves. And that’s why I keep asking: ‘What are you doing to implement those recommendations?” said Lorelei Williams, a longtime advocate for missing and murdered women. Williams is still searching for her aunt, Belinda Williams who vanished in 1978; her cousin Tanya Holyk was murdered by the serial killer Robert Pickton in 1996.
“We have this attention now with the national inquiry, but how long is that going to last for?” she asked. “At the end of the day women are still going to go missing and are being murdered.”
Smith’s work is also motived in part by personal loss. Her sister, Claudette Osborne, disappeared in 2008 and remains missing. The family had no resources to publicise her case and no institutional help.
“The police said they needed evidence to search, and they didn’t have any – so they weren’t going to. It took them 10 days to actually start investigating my sister’s case.”
The report sharply rebukes police services in Canada – especially the country’s federal Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).
“The continued racism and sexism by many RCMP officers directed at Indigenous peoples, the high rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women … have caused many Indigenous peoples and communities to lose trust and confidence in the Canadian justice system, the RCMP and police services in general,” said the report.
As a result of her poor experience with police, Smith and other activists took matters into their own hands. In 2014, when 15-year-old Tina Fontaine went missing, Smith gathered a group to scour the river for the young woman.
Since then, Drag the Red has grown from 25 committed volunteers to hundreds. The organization has received boats as donations and in five years of dragging the river, they have recovered scores of bodies. They also help families react to the news of a missing loved one, including how to hold a vigil and how to organize.
“We want people to know that we are actively on that river. We are actively searching the banks of the Red River,” said Smith. “If you think you’re going to put a body in that river, that it’s not going to be found – think again.”
While Smith and Williams are hopeful the inquiry will have a lasting impact, the daily work of activism that underpins the report weighs heavily.
“I feel like I’ve taken an emotional beating. But at the end of the day, I’m trying to get my missing aunt’s picture out there. That’s what keeps me going. I want to honour my cousin,” said Williams. “But I also realize that the pain and the exhaustion I feel is nothing compared to what they, or the rest of the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, have gone through.”