How an Indigenous Neighbourhood Patrol Is Fighting Overdoses in Winnipeg

Bear Clan Patrol began as a response to 15-year-old Tina Fontaine’s disappearance, and has since found new ways to serve a hurting community.

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Apr 5 2017, 1:00pm

All photos by the author.

There's some yelling outside the Ndinawe youth drop in centre in Winnipeg's North End neighbourhood on Sunday evening.

It quickly stops when a group of people in bright yellow vests come outside and ask what's going on. They are members of the Bear Clan Patrol, a volunteer safety group that have been walking through Winnipeg's most notorious neighbourhood five to six nights a week for more than two years.

The young man and woman who are angry for some unknown reason quickly walk in different directions from each other and the members of the patrol go back in the building, located on Selkirk Street, to prepare for another night on the streets.

The Bear Clan Patrol initially started in this neighbourhood in the mid-90s, but after the founder passed away, it also disappeared.

Life continued on these streets with young families, amazing murals and some serious issues with violence, crime and addictions.

But in August 2014 a horrific discovery in the city's Red River brought the group back together to tackle issues which, to governments and political leaders, seemed almost insurmountable.

"We didn't wait around. We didn't ask for permission. We said we are going to do this, endorse us or not, we are going to be there," Bear Clan co-founder James Favel told VICE during a patrol.

Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old girl from the Sagkeeng First Nation located just outside Winnipeg, disappeared during the summer of 2014. She was in the care of Manitoba Child and Family Services. Despite allegedly running into police, being found passed out in an alleyway and being brought to hospital, Fontaine went missing again on August 9.

Eight days later a body was found wrapped in a plastic bag in the Red River. It was Fontaine.

"People were crying out for direct action, boots on the ground, no more cops—to do something," Favel says as we walk south down Powers Street.

On a local news station, Favel told a reporter that he wanted to start the Bear Clan Patrol again. The right people were watching, he says. There was a meeting the next day and soon after the first patrol hit the streets.

"This is what the community wanted. The fact that we now have over 530 volunteers is a testament to that. They were ready. People wanted to do this. We just gave them a viable model," he says.

Gathering in the small centre before patrol all of the volunteers grab their necessary gear: the bright yellow vests, plastic gloves and containers to store used needles they find on the street. There's also bags of apples this night. A volunteer named Bob bought them and everyone fills their pockets with the fruit, a hot commodity on the streets, especially with kids. Sometimes they also have candy to hand out, the volunteers laugh that it's a favourite of the kids.

But the volunteers also have to go through a list of safety precautions—don't be on your cell phone, be aware of your surroundings, don't wander away from the group—and sign a waiver form. Favel says safety is their number one precaution, it's unlikely there will be serious issues but I also need to sign the waiver if I want to join.

The volunteers get split up into groups to cover more ground—making sure there are at least a couple men in each group.

Then we get to walking.

Bear Clan Patrol co-founder James Favel (left) with volunteer.

It's a pretty simple idea, Favel says, as we stop for one of the volunteers to see if a visibly intoxicated woman they all know by name is okay and can get home safe.

"We are trying to get that village feel back. Trying to inspire people to care more about one another," he said.

A regular night sees the group walk for about three hours, changing up the route they take each time. They wave to people on the street, hand out food and condoms, whatever donations they have collected, and respond to the needs of the people they encounter.

Calls for overdoses and poisoning have continued to rise in Winnipeg, about 50 per cent in the past 14 months, CBC reports.

Last November, many of the Bear Clan Patrol members were trained to administer naloxone, an overdose-reversing drug. Members carry the naloxone kits on patrol but they also work with paramedics if they come across someone who may be overdosing.

The same month, there was a federal health summit on the opioid situation across the country and even though medical experts urged Canada to declare a public emergency it never happened. Manitoba's commitment following the summit was to improve data collection and expand naloxone distribution.

In December, Health Minister Jane Philpott introduced bill C-37, to tackle the opioid crisis and ease restrictions on supervised injection sites but those sites don't seem to be in the cards for Manitoba any time soon.

Favel says there's always a lot of talk from experts and politicians but on the street that doesn't often amount to much change. He says he was talking with some people recently about the $53.8 million-price tag attached to the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and the recent reports that families involved aren't feeling like they are a part of it.

As we walk through a residential housing complex that has a reputation for being rough, children rush out of homes and from the parks calling volunteers by name. The apples they brought are quickly gone.

One kid runs up with an envelope and whispers to a volunteer, "there are needles inside." It's taken some time for the Bear Clan to build this kind of trust. Favel says at first when they started people assumed it would be like most social efforts in this neighbourhood—here one day and then gone the next. Good intentions with little follow through is something they know all too well.

"The whole first year was just showing the community we were sincere, the police we were sincere, not doing anything reckless or acting crazy," Favel says.

Favel stops. There's a dead mouse on the front walk to a house surrounded by a chalk outline, just like you'd see in a criminal investigation on a television show. He grabs a pair of plastic gloves, picks up the little corpse and brings it to a nearby trash can, laughing about the chalk outline.

The volunteers can find humour in the tiny mouse crime scene, but they've seen a lot of real life tragedy and trauma on their patrols, too.

Last fall they were in this same housing complex when a woman came outside screaming, Favel says. Two people had been drinking and got into a fight that escalated quickly when one of them brought out a machete. A guy had his fingers almost completely chopped off.

The Bear Clan Patrol have first-aid training and responded quickly, treating the severed fingers and calling for paramedics. It was because of that response the guy ended up keeping mobile fingers, Favel says.

He points to a few doors down and Favel's face turns grim. When the Bear Clan Patrol first began they came across a teenage girl trying to sell her 13-year-old relative into prostitution. Favel says they were both kids. It was messed up.

"Because we were there, we stopped that from happening. That's what we do," he said.

The North End's problems are like other core neighbourhoods in larger cities across the country when there's high unemployment, cheaper housing and addictions issues. The difference, which gives it its infamous reputation, is likely it's high Indigenous population. According to Statistics Canada in 2011, 17 per cent of Manitoba's population is Aboriginal, higher than any other provinces and four times the national average. In 2006 there were about 68,400 Aboriginal people living in Winnipeg, the largest Aboriginal population of any city in Canada.

Manitoba had the highest homicide rate in Canada for eight years until it was surpassed by Saskatchewan in 2015. Manitoba Child and Family Services has been under scrutiny for years and as of March 2016 there were 10,501 children in care, of those 9,205 were Inuit, Metis or First Nations.

There are clearly unique issues in dealing with the inter-generational trauma of residential schools and colonialism when there's a large Indigenous population. But it also means racism, most disturbingly from people who are supposed to be tasked to help. A 2010 post by the wife of a mayoral candidate resurfaced in 2014 caused controversy after she wrote about "drunken native guys."

"We all donate enough money to the government to keep thier (sic) sorry assess (sic) on welfare, so shut the f**k up and don't ask me for another handout!"

That candidate lost to current mayor Brian Bowman, the city's first Metis mayor.

In 2015, a Winnipeg high school teacher, posted on Facebook, "Oh Goddd how long are aboriginal people going to use what happened as a crutch to suck more money out of Canadians?"

This high school teacher was responding to a post about a John Ralston Saul book about repairing the relationship between First Nations peoples and the rest of Canada.

When some Winnipeggers make these kinds of posts online or say these comments to friends and family, they are picturing the North End.

Favel's over it. I'm probably not the first or last person to ask about it. He says he'd rather talk about the good work they are doing and the change in the streets.

The Bear Clan Patrol started without any funds. Last year they ran on $25,000, all through private donations.

Recently retired Winnipeg police chief Devon Clunis decided to put his badge down and started a new venture to help fund grassroots organizations. The Bear Clan Patrol are the first project and that means a much bigger budget, $115,000 over three years.

Not only does it show that their work is being recognized as necessary by law enforcement, it means Favel can keep doing it. Last December, Favel almost lost his house because he left his job as a full-time trucker to work 100-hour weeks with the Bear Clan.

It's not about the money at all Favel says, he will find a way to keep going as long as the Bear Clan needs him. Similar groups have popped up throughout Winnipeg and across the country including in Regina, Thunder Bay, Kenora and Toronto and Lethbridge are trying to start some as well, Favel says.

"I think people are sick of waiting so they are getting out of their comfort zone, going out on the street and joining us," he says, passing by the rail yards at the south side of the neighbourhood which act as a barrier to the rest of Winnipeg.

As the sun starts to set, the group continues on down another street and I hop into the Bear Clan Patrol's van which moves around the neighbourhood a little faster checking in on specific areas.

The woman from earlier in the patrol comes up and says she hasn't slept in three days and wonders if she could get a ride home to a local shady-looking hotel.

"Yup. Get in," the driver says.

We drive another block before pulling over to the side of the road and a woman comes up to the window. She jokes with the driver before he hands her a bunch of condoms, asking which is her favourite to make sure she gets it.

The driver tells me about the beautiful old buildings, corners and a place that makes delicious bread as we make our way through. Like the other members, he knows the streets, he knows the people and he knows what they need—he's not waiting for outside help, he's doing it each night.

I ask if it ever gets exhausting, and he looks out the window and says, "No." It's just another night on patrol.

Follow Geraldine Malone on Twitter.

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