The Bear Clan: An Indigenous approach to safety and well-being in Winnipeg

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On this week's episode of Talking Radical Radio, I speak with James Favel, Jesse Leigh, and Larry Morrissette about the Bear Clan, an Indigenous approach to community safety and well-being in the north end of Winnipeg.

Winnipeg is home to the largest urban concentration of Indigenous people of any city in Canada. Many Indigenous residents of Winnipeg live in the neighbourhoods of the city's north end. Though they often manage to show great resilience, the combination of the social pressures that are producing ever more intense poverty in every city in this neoliberal age with the half millennium-old forces of colonialism mean that these neighbourhoods and many of their residents face some pretty steep challenges.

James Favel lives in the north end. In 2010, he got involved in his local residents' association in the Dufferin neighbourhood, and as he became more and more involved, he felt more and more strongly that they needed to do something concrete, immediate, and direct to create a way for folks in the neighbourhood to support and look out for each other. He and others had been talking about different models of community safety patrols, but they just weren't comfortable with the mainstream approach to doing that, which gave the police and other elements of the state more say than they wanted in who could be involved and how it would work. Instead, they looked back to a group that existed in the community in the 1990s, grounded in traditional Indigenous practices and models of governance, called the Bear Clan Patrol. The tipping point for him was that tragic day in 2014 when the body of Tina Fontaine, a missing Anishnaabe girl, was retrieved from the Red River. He happened to mention the idea of reviving the Bear Clan in a television interview that day, and from that point on the process took off.

The core activity of the Bear Clan Patrol is the street patrols they do four evenings a week. The aim while they're out is to engage with whomever they encounter, to offer practical supports -- from scarves to coffee, from a kind word to condoms -- and to build relationships. They create safety just by being present and visible and engaged. They try to be an avenue through which people can find other kinds of resources and supports they need, and to be a catalyst to help regrow the kinds of organic connections among people that poverty and colonialism have done so much to undermine.

The name "Bear Clan Patrol" comes from one of the clans in traditional governance systems in that part of the continent. Different clans had different responsibilities, and one of the responsibilities of the Bear Clan was protection. And with the grounding in traditional practices and values, the emphasis is that everyone is part of the community and deserves safety and support -- including not only homeowners (as is so often the case with neighbourhood patrols in white-majority and middle-class neighbourhoods) but also homeless people, sex workers, people struggling with addictions, and everyone else. Though they have a good working relationship with the police and the city government, they are relatively autonomous, and their aim is to find ways to intervene in community issues before the police or the child welfare system (or other systems that have historically taken a toll on Indigenous peoples) have reason to act. The patrol is governed by a Clan Council, and also engages in other kinds of community-building work.

Favel is one of the coordinators of the new version of the Bear Clan Patrol. Jesse Leigh is the community development coordinator for the Dufferin neighbourhood in Winnipeg's north end, and is also involved in coordinating the patrol. And Larry Morissette was involved with the original Bear Clan, and is a contributing elder with the Bear Clan today. They speak with me about Winnipeg's north end and about the work of the Bear Clan.

To learn more about the work of the Bear Clan, you can follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada. We give you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show in general, visit its website here. You can learn about suggesting topics for future shows here.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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