We meet the bikers in a parking lot behind a strip mall, a predictable landscape of Harleys, leather, and tattoos set against a backdrop of graffiti and train tracks. It initially seems a bit dodgy, until the bikers bring out their stuffed animal mascot.
"Never underestimate the power of a bear," group leader CC Rider told me, clutching the teddy in his skull ring–clad hands. Beside him, a large bald man puffing on a cigar nods his approval.
Rider is the president of the Montreal branch of Bikers Against Child Abuse, an international group of do-gooder bikers whose mandate is to help children. Inside the strip mall, the bikers are about to kick off their monthly group meeting, which VICE was invited to attend.
Founded in Utah in the 90s, the atypical biker gang now has chapters in a dozen countries across the world. The organization was created by John Paul "Chief" Lilly, an American social worker who felt there was a lack of available resources for abused children.
"BACA exists with the intent to create a safer environment for children who have been abused," Rider says. "We exist to empower children not to live in fear."
But getting people to buy into this message has been a challenge in a province still reeling from the bloody and nearly decade-long 90s biker war. The Montreal chapter is the province's first, but Rider says the interest is building.
The scary reputation, he points out, can be an advantage. "This works because we're bikers, if we were golfers it wouldn't work."
Rider explains the BACA "mentorship" typically begins when a parent or guardian reaches out to the group. The cases they deal with usually involve a form of mental, physical, or sexual abuse, and BACA's first order of business is ensuring the crimes have been brought to authorities' attention.
"When we first get a call, we do our first visit with the family, and we try to understand what's gone on, to make sure it is a case where we can help," Rider says. "We're not thugs for hire. We're not here to resolve any conjugal differences. We want to make sure the case has been reported."
The child then gets matched up to a designated biker who is on call for anything from mood-boosting bike rides to moral support during legal proceedings.
Rider recalls an instance when one American chapter accompanied a BACA child in court. "Even as an adult, you can understand that going to court makes you a little nervous, but imagine you're a 13-year-old speaking in front of a stranger, and you know your abuser is in there."
Rider says having a group of bikers sitting in the courtroom gave the young teen courage to tell her entire story. In her testimony, he says the child revealed her assailant had threatened to set her house on fire if she told anyone about the abuse. "So the judge asked her, 'Aren't you afraid?' And she says, 'No I'm not, because my friends are scarier,'" Rider says. "That's what we do. We show up."
Since they officially began their interventions last fall, the Montreal chapter says they have assisted a number of children, though Rider doesn't want to disclose exact figures.
"It's been payday for us. It's just incredible, the feeling you get taking on a child, putting a smile on a kid's face," he says. "When we take on a kid, we'll give him a BACA vest with their own patches, we'll give the kid a [biker] name for their own safety, and we'll hand him a BACA bear."
As we talk, the bikers gather to demonstrate what goes into the bear "ceremony." One by one, the leather-clad men hug one another, sandwiching the stuffed animal between leather vests and eagle pins.
"Basically what we do is that every member will go in and fill [the bear] up with love, so we'll hug it pass it around to every single member and then hand it over to the kid," he says.
Rider attributes BACA's success to bikers' pack mentality. "We're loyal to one another, and we have that integrity. We never leave anybody behind, and that's what we transmit to the kids. Kids are not stupid. They get it, they can sense that very quickly."
As the group sits down for its meeting, Rider takes to the makeshift stage to deliver a speech. Around him, about 30 bikers—men and women of all ages—listen attentively.
"If circumstances arise such that we are the only obstacle preventing a child from further abuse, we stand ready to be that obstacle," he tells the group. "If the abuser wants to get through us, I'm willing to stand and take a bullet for that child. That's what it takes to become a BACA member."
Still, Rider insists BACA members are not vigilantes, and that the group will never go after the "bad guys."
"We don't care about the abuser," he says. "We're there for the kids."
He says police know about the group's activities, and that BACA always contacts them when the chapter pays its initial visit to a child. "We'll advise local police, let them know who we are, what's the reason why we're there, why there are thirty bikers on a dead end street."
Rider continues, "They're aware of our existence, obviously they're keeping eye on us, because when you say bikers, everybody has a preconceived idea. But so far we haven't had any negative reactions."
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