Latest stories

Aerial view of a river flowing through a large city.

River searches to help bring closure (Major Crimes – Part 2)

Police in Alberta conduct annual river sweeps and air searches of major waterways like the Bow River to help find missing people. Credit: RCMP

The RCMP's Major Crime units are responsible for a variety of investigations, including missing persons. In Part 2 of our series on major crimes, Gazette magazine explores the annual river sweeps that police in Alberta undertake each fall to advance these investigations and bring closure to families.

By Paul Northcott

Every day across Canada, police search for missing persons — to find lost loved ones or to solve crimes. In Alberta, thousands of missing persons reports are filed each year. Fortunately, most of those people are found.

However, for those who remain missing, the RCMP and its municipal counterparts in Edmonton and Calgary have for years conducted annual searches of the major rivers and their banks that run through both cities, the North Saskatchewan and Bow rivers respectively.

While no bodies have been recovered in Calgary or Edmonton and only one has been recovered outside of Edmonton, police say the searches are a normal part of the investigative and collaborative process.

"We want to assure the families and the public that the cases are still active in hopes of finding all reported missing persons," says Edmonton-based RCMP Sgt. Ray Tardif, the non-commissioned officer who was in charge of Alberta's Missing Persons Unit in early 2020.

Team approach

To ensure the searches are as effective as possible, police enlist the help of even more partners, such as fire departments, park rangers and search-and-rescue teams, who bring with them additional equipment and knowledge about the rivers.

"That's key to getting this done effectively," says Sgt. Kevin Harrison of the Edmonton Police Service. "Now that we've done this for several years, we'll just call each other up when the time seems right and start the process of organizing the searches."

The river sweeps are conducted in late summer or early fall when the water is clearer and rivers usually run slower.

"Even then, the river can still be a beast to search," adds Harrison, who's head of the provincial unit. "It may look slow moving but, when you drop cameras into the river at some places, the water can move like a torrent and it's difficult to see."

Sometimes even large companies get involved.

In Calgary, police and other searchers begin their work on the city's western edge near the Bearspaw Dam, which is owned by power company TransAlta.

"Like everyone else with an interest in the river, when we needed their help, we were able to work with them to lower the water level during the searches," says S/Sgt. Martin Schiavetta of the Calgary Police Services homicide unit. "This would not be possible without everyone involved. A lot of preparation goes into this and it's getting bigger every year."

Water and air searches

In Alberta's two biggest cities, searchers take to boats, while three RCMP officers take to the sky to scan the rivers as they flow towards the Alberta–Saskatchewan border.

"We usually take two days for the air search," says Tardif, referring to the North Saskatchewan River. "It takes a lot of concentration and we want to make sure we do it right."

All searchers are looking for anything that shouldn't be in the river.

"Obviously a body would help bring closure to families and loved ones," says Tardif. "But it could be anything, clothing or something that just doesn't belong that may provide some answers."

This fall marks the sixth year for the river searches.

If remains are found, officials would work with the province's Medical Examiner's Office to confirm identity.

Date modified: