In a small room in the back of the Ndinawe Youth Resource Centre on Selkirk Avenue, a group of about 30 people prepare to walk the alleys of Winnipeg’s North End. On this Friday night, they will scour and clean up discarded needles and drug paraphernalia. Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs has been invited along to see first-hand the work the Bear Clan Patrol does. They are a group of volunteers who dedicate themselves to help keep some of Winnipeg’s most vulnerable people and the areas they call home safe.
Founder James Favel sits in a large armchair in the corner of the room, watching the volunteers as they ready themselves for the next three hours. He makes sure everyone who is hungry eats the sandwiches provided.
“Don’t feed the floor,” his low voice growls out as a young volunteer drops some lettuce on the worn rug.
As they head out, another group of residents are gathered across the street at the Bell Tower. The two groups mingle as they are addressed by another well-known North End resident, Michael Champagne. This evening, his group – Aboriginal Youth Organization, known as AYO – are giving away backpacks full of supplies for youth returning to school. The turnout is larger than usual and spirits are high. Bear Clan members navigate the crowd and hand out cookies to children who are there to receive backpacks.
While the Bell Tower attendees disperse, the Bear Clan members gather for a group photo.
“This is something we’ve started doing before every walk,” says Favel.
It is a way for them to have a visual record of who is at each walk. It also shows appreciation to the volunteers and provides a sense of camaraderie. Favel then splits the volunteers into five groups who spread themselves over five city blocks.
Staying safe while on patrol
Grand Chief Dumas waits patiently while the groups make their way to their starting points. The groups walk the lanes together and after each block, line up and account for one another. They keep in touch through walkie-talkies. Before beginning their walk, Favel explains to the Grand Chief what to watch out for.
“Piles of garbage are where you will find things like needles or used bags from drugs,” he says. “If you’re picking up a needle, you have to wear latex gloves. You yell out “sharp” and another member will bring over the sharps container. If you are handling food, you are not handling needles.”
The Bear Clan Patrol receives donations from a variety of sources but more recently has been getting daily food donations from Costco. The previous day they received a half tonne of nectarines. Some boys call out to Favel and ask if he has anymore nectarines. He doesn’t. Tonight, they are handing out apples and oranges. Fresh fruit is a welcome gift for residents who may not always be able to afford it.
This is part of what Favel and the Bear Clan Patrol has established in Winnipeg – community. But it wasn’t always this way. Favel says when they first started out four years ago, people didn’t think they were genuine and they wouldn’t last.
“It wasn’t easy. We had to build the trust,” says Favel. Grand Chief Dumas nods in agreement. He knows what it is like to have to build trust.
So far this year 35 tonnes of food has been donated. They clocked 21,000 volunteer hours in 2017 and forecast 33,000 volunteer hours this year. They have collected almost 30,000 needles so far in 2018. They have seven paid full-time and part-time staff workers. In June, they had $50,000 in temporary work placements. They are janitors, first responders, neighbours, ambassadors but most importantly they do this because they care about the people who call the North End home.
It’s easy to see the trust the patrol has built. As Grand Chief Dumas walks with Favel through the back alleys, people call out from their yards to say hello and to thank the teams in the bright yellow vests and t-shirts for their service. They drive by in their vehicles, honking and shouting out to Favel, who proudly introduces Dumas.
“This is the Grand Chief! Come say hello.”
It sounds like a demand but really it’s Favel wanting his community to know that First Nation leaders, like Grand Chief Dumas, care about what’s happening in the North End. While the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs represents 62 of 63 First Nations in Manitoba and work to represent the Chiefs and their citizens’ needs, they also work with urban populations through programs like the Eagle Urban Transition Centre, the First Nations Family Advocate Office, Eagle’s Nest, the Patient Advocate Unit and the Special Needs Advocate Unit.
Beauty and misfortune
Grand Chief Dumas listens intently to everything Favel shares with him. He also actively participates. He greets the children and youth, men and women while he offers them fresh fruit. He also takes note of other conditions.
“How come there is so much garbage here? Shouldn’t the city be cleaning this up?” questions the Grand Chief.
“There’s a lot of illegal dumping that happens,” responds Favel.
The Grand Chief has a look of consternation on his face. Finally, he says to Favel that he plans to speak with Mayor Brian Bowman about it.
“Property taxes are paid in this part of the city. They should benefit from that,” says Grand Chief Dumas.
In the 15-block radius the Grand Chief walks, he sees both the beauty and the tragedy of this area. He sees an auntie looking for children who are supposed to be at the playground, a young man distraught from a break-up and high on an unknown substance, medical waste that litters yard after yard from where people have been shooting up, and barefooted children playing. But he also sees a community that is so committed to making their neighbourhood a better place to live that his heart soars.
The sun is setting but before the Grand Chief and James Favel part ways, Favel takes him to Costco to pick up a donation of fruit, breads and pastries. They load up a Chevy Silverado that was donated by Eric Johnson from Johnson Waste Management. Then it’s on to the Kekinan Centre for assisted living. Some of the residents still sit outside when they pull up at 9:30 p.m. They wait patiently while the Grand Chief and Favel unload the food that they place on their walkers and wheel back to their rooms.
Leading by example
An Elder approaches Grand Chief Dumas, grabs his hand, looks him in the eye and says, “You’re the leader we’ve been waiting for.” He smiles humbly and bows his head while shaking her hand and thanking her.
“It always means so much more when it comes from Elders,” says Favel.
Favel returns the Grand Chief back to Selkirk Avenue and the Ndinawe Youth Resource Centre. Passersby see Favel and before long the truck is surrounded and the last of the food is being handed out.
The Grand Chief has a last thought for Favel. He can see the difference the Bear Clan Patrol is making and he considers how the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs can partner with them.
“We have to stop working in our silos. We need to come together because they’ve been dividing us for too long,” says Grand Chief Dumas.
Favel reflects on this and then replies: “What we’re doing is not rocket science. It’s just we’re the first to do this.”
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