The Bear Clan Patrol is recruiting cubs from city schools to watch over Winnipeg streets, a longtime ambition its founder saw realized for the first time Wednesday.
Dozens of students donned neon vests to patrol the West End streets surrounding General Wolfe School after the afternoon bell rang, marking the first time the Indigenous-led community watch group has partnered with schools.
"The ideology behind it is to keep the kids from going down the wrong path," said James Favel, co-founder and executive director of the Bear Clan.
"Prevention is better than remediation, and that’s basically what we’re doing."
Favel said he wanted to collaborate with schools the moment he thought of reviving the Bear Clan in late 2014. The neighbourhood patrol existed in the 1990s, but had been in hibernation until volunteers took to the streets again in 2015, with Favel assuming the "Papa Bear" role.
Education, he said, is critically important when it comes to developing street smarts among youth. That’s why Favel wants all city schools to invite Bear Clan members and police officers to give presentations about gang violence, exploitation and grooming tactics, and lead community patrols.
Before hitting the streets Wednesday, officers and patrol veterans showed the middle school students drug paraphernalia and taught them what to do if they spotted a syringe — yell "sharp!" to attract an adult with gloves and a safe disposal box.
Faylee, a Grade 7 student, did just that after she found a syringe in a back alley off Sargent Avenue. The 12-year-old said she often sees syringes in her neighbourhood and during her walk to school, which is why she wanted to get involved with the Bear Clan.
"I decided I wanted to do it because it would be a good use of my time, so I could pick up bad stuff like metal and needles and medicine and drugs and whatever, so nobody else’s kids are in danger," she said.
"I want to change the city to get back to a good place, a better place than before."
Bear Clan members spoke to the group of about 40 students Wednesday about their harm-reduction stance, and how their goal isn’t to judge, but rather meet with and check up on community members. Members then handed out care packages containing everything from juice boxes to toothbrushes for students to distribute.
"Offering someone a fruit or a granola bar or even just saying "hello" — kids need to understand that even that small thing is a big thing for someone who’s having a bad day," said Mario Cueto, a teacher at General Wolfe and member of the Bear Clan.
Cueto added Bear Clan members challenge negative stereotypes of Indigenous people, as they often become mentors for youth participants.
The Bear Clan currently boasts 1,700 Winnipeg-based adult volunteers. Between 12 to 20 youth per session participate in its mock community youth patrols in the North End and West Broadway.
"It tends to inspire them to get more active and be proactive in their communities," Favel said, adding he hopes General Wolfe students are inspired to join their regular youth patrols.
"That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to spark that fire in them to get into the community, get out there and do something positive."
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.