Heritage Group meeting of October 19, 2017.
by Leslie Walsh
Editor’s Note: The original Bear Clan Patrol was founded in the early 1990s by the late Larry Morrisette and workers at the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre in Winnipeg’s North End. With over 200 volunteers walking, driving, or cycling in teams through inner-city neighbourhoods, the Clan focused on preventing crime and helping vulnerable people, but withered away after several years. Today’s Patrol operates out of the Ndinawe Youth Resource Centre at 472 Selkirk Ave.
It was the murder of Tina Fontaine in August of 2014 that pushed James Favel to become involved. A four-time convicted felon, James had never connected with existing community groups that rejected volunteers with criminal records. Yet he was troubled by the disconnect he saw in the community.
“One day I was walking on Selkirk Avenue and noticed a 20-year-old woman lying on a stoop in a fetal position. Everyone was passing her by. I stopped and asked her if she was OK. She wasn’t; she had been beaten up.”
So came the reconstitution of the Bear Clan Patrol (BCP) in 2015. Its mandate: empower women, elders, children and vulnerable members of the community. The intent is not to replace police, but to build relationships and to educate the public within an Indigenous-based clan system.
The first year was a struggle. With only twelve members, it was difficult to get enough people to volunteer on a regular basis. Life often gets in the way and it was hard to do a regular schedule. Volunteering has since been opened up to be on a drop-in basis, taking the pressure off of making a commitment. Everyone is welcome, though the BCP does not accept anyone who has had a history of violence with women.
The BCP work five to six days a week, including Friday evenings and Saturdays, and those wishing to volunteer can go to 472 Selkirk Avenue Wednesday to Sunday at 5:30. Volunteering requires a three-hour commitment, with patrolling from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Drawing from the community, the Patrol’s diverse volunteers include university students, resident doctors, members of the military, as well as people with disabilities and criminal records. Now 800 strong, the volunteer base is at an all-time high with some 21,000 hours of service forecasted for this year.
22 communities across four provinces have become involved, with Regina, Kenora and Thunder Bay trained by the Winnipeg Bear Clan. Winnipeg chapters are in Dufferin, William Whyte, St. John’s, Centennial, Point Douglas, the Maples, Brooklands, Transcona, and River Heights. Communities have embraced them and so have the Winnipeg Police. Partners include the Indian and Metis Friendship Centre, Wayfinders, the Paramedics, Street Connections, Thunderbird House, Ndinawemaaganag (a Youth Drop In), Cramptons Market, Costco, halfway houses, and Urban Circle Day Care.
The BCP participate in community events and offer parade marshalling and other supports. When Aboriginal people were evacuated to the Winnipeg Convention Centre this year following a fire in the North, the BCP helped set up 1,200 cots. They became ambassadors for those displaced by the fires and made sure that evacuees were being treated respectfully and that their needs were being met.
In another case, seven families were totally displaced after losing everything in a fire at a housing complex on Dufferin Street. The BCP through social media generated a trailer-full of donations that included clothing, bedding, furniture, and everything required to start again. Even after a two-day “free giveaway” during which 450 people were able to get what they needed, seven box-fulls were donated to the United Way. Many people in the community pulled together to help in a variety of ways such as providing storage and cleaning furniture.
When asked by Cooper Nemeth’s father for help in the 2016 search for Cooper, the Patrol provided support and comfort for the family. After Cooper was found dead, they were invited to be part of a smudging ceremony for him. There were 1,000 people at the Gateway Recreation Centre, both Indigenous and Non-Indigenous. To this day James is still in contact with the family, and Cooper’s Aunt Amber provides care packs to the community. These packs contain zip-top canned foods, water, granola bars, fruit squares, wipes, condoms, combs and toilet paper as well as other articles.
The BCP was also asked to help with the search for Azraya Ackabee-Kokopenace, a young Kenora woman reported missing in 2016. Because a Bear Clan missing-person’s social media post can reach over 175,000 people, tips tend to flow in. A local BCP man trained in search and rescue noticed an eagle doing tight circles over an area. Azraya was found hanging from a tree ten feet above the roadway where the eagle had been flying.
To build capacity in its volunteers and to help prepare them for the workplace, training is offered from a variety of sources including the Red Cross, the Winnipeg police, and social services providers. For example, one volunteer with FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder) had been in prison and had never held a job. After training on suicide, PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), and first aid, and accompanying the Winnipeg police on bike patrols, he landed ten nights employment at the Convention Centre and $1,000 in earnings.
Volunteers receive first aid training and, since the opioid crisis, 42 of them are qualified to use naloxone kits (the BCP is also advocating for a safe injection site). The Clan even has its own AED (automated external defibrillator). To teach young people street-proofing and how to identify hazards in the community, the BCP have begun to organize youth mock patrols and have a training kit for them. 3,000 needles have been found on the street this year.
“If people can’t stay clean, they can’t stay healthy.”
The BCP’s impact on youth in the community is significant. James shared a rap music video called “Demons” by a teen from Red Sucker Lake, Tyler Harper. Incarcerated following a fight with a friend who later died, Tyler became involved with the Bear Clan after his release and credits the Clan with turning his life around.
“People shouldn’t be branded for the rest of their lives because of a mistake. Out of these tragedies comes healing.”
In another example, three women walking through a Lord Selkirk Park development passed a Patrol in high visibility vests. The youngest of the three, actually only 13 years old, held back to tell the BCP that the other two were taking her to be sold to a man. The BCP was able to intervene. James also noted that the law requires vehicle seizure when anyone is arrested for soliciting prostitutes, but police were not doing this. Now the Patrol records the johns’ licence plate numbers, contacts the police, and cars are being taken away.
Incorporated in 2016, Bear Clan Patrol Inc now provides insurance for its board and patrol members, and maintains standards, policies and procedures, by-laws, and a constitution. Patrol reports are well documented and kept in a database. And though the BCP receives no official funding, a plan to accept donations is in the works.
But with or without funding, James ended his presentation on an extremely positive note: “The Bear Clan will change the world!”