In a small room in a Winnipeg community centre, dozens of volunteers strap on bright yellow vests and ready themselves for night patrol. Some will pick up syringes along the way, others will hand out fresh fruit and water – all under the banner of protecting the city’s most vulnerable.
“We are the boots on the ground,” said James Favel, the founder of Winnipeg’s Bear Clan. “We are the direct action that our nation has been crying for for decades.”
It’s a model of indigenous activism that has since swept across Canada, embraced by dozens of communities.
Favel launched the organisation in 2014, after a missing 15-year-old was found wrapped in plastic at the bottom of a Winnipeg river. Tina Fontaine’s tragic death – the latest in a list of as many as 4,000 indigenous women across Canada who had gone missing or had been murdered in recent decades – left the city reeling and propelled Favel into action.
“That was kind of a last straw,” said Favel. “Something had to happen and it had to happen now.”
The solution he landed on harked back to the early 1990s, when a group of indigenous volunteers had taken to regularly walking the streets of Winnipeg in an effort to protect the city’s most vulnerable. Calling themselves the Bear Clan, the group lost traction a few years after it was launched.
As Fontaine’s death weighed over this city of some 700,000 people, Favel wondered if it might be time to revive the Bear Clan. Months after his musing, the organisation was relaunched as a community-based safety patrol now powered by more than 1,100 volunteers.
In Winnipeg, the patrols were grounded in the city’s stark reality. Home to the largest urban indigenous population in North America, the city still bears the dark legacy of Canada’s state-sponsored, church-run residential school system and scars of colonisation have left some battling poverty, homelessness and addiction.
Discrimination and division run deep, at times leaving indigenous women fearful of carrying out everyday tasks such as hailing a cab.
Bear Clan patrols go out every night of the week, with volunteers walking between nine and 12 kilometres in various communities and handing out produce, snacks and baked goods as they go.
Armed with first aid and naloxone training, volunteers keep an eye out for any sign of trouble and pick up any syringes, crack pipes and drug bags they come across.
But their aim, mostly, is to show residents that they are there, ready to listen to their concerns and help out where they can. “We’ve provided support in times of crisis, we’ve provided food, temporary work placement,” said Favel.
At times the situations they have run into have been harrowing; from a fight in which one man pulled out a machete and attempted to chop another’s fingers off, to a teenage girl who was attempting to sell a 13-year-old relative into prostitution.
Much of the organisation’s focus is on a handful of neighbourhoods, including the North End where Favel lives. “My daughter left home because she hated being badgered by johns when she was walking home from the bus stop. We have a drug dealer across the street, we have a john that lives next door and a brothel two doors down from my house,” he said. “I was struggling to protect my family and myself and it’s grown into this, where we’re protecting the larger community.”
Many of the volunteers are directly connected to the communities being served. “There are plenty of nights where the patrol is made up entirely of community members,” Favel said, his voice laced with pride. “And that’s the healing that we’re after, that’s the empowerment that we’re after. We want to see the stakeholder mentality in our community members.”
Some five years after the Bear Clan was launched, Favel remains at the heart of it, at one point almost losing his home after he left his lucrative job as a trucker to focus full time on the organisation.
The 50-year-old has become one of the city’s most prominent leaders – a remarkable transformation for a man who, by the age of 32, had racked up four convictions related to drug trafficking.
“But that’s the point,” he said. “Just because we made these mistakes in the past, doesn’t mean we should be branded like that for the rest of our lives … I’m trying to change the way people value people.”
This includes healing the wide rift that exists between the city’s indigenous and non-indigenous population. A critical breakthrough came in 2016 after the Bear Clan joined the search for a missing, non-indigenous 17-year-old, casting a spotlight on the organisation and the singular role it plays in the city.
“I think that was the start of our reconciliatory-type work,” said Favel. “The whole city is engaged, I think. There’s some that care about us, some that don’t care about us, but I think everybody knows about us.”
Still, there’s much work to be done, said Favel. “What we’re doing is not rocket science. Once this kind of behaviour is normalised, there’ll be nothing special about us any more,” he said. “It just takes for people to get off their couch and get into the community and lend a hand where they can, say hello to a stranger, give somebody a piece of fruit. It’s really simple.”
Article courtesy of The Guardian