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This article was published 29/3/2019 (424 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
As he shambles down the slushy streets he has sworn to protect, his silver-black hair tied into a single braid that dangles halfway down his back, James Favel gives off the aura of a small, but determined bear.
It’s only fitting, because the 50-year-old, five-foot-10, 230-pound activist is the "Papa Bear" of Winnipeg’s Bear Clan Patrol, the nationally renowned volunteer street patrol dedicated to making the city’s meanest streets safer and more secure.
Patrolling into the late hours in their bright-yellow vests, the Bear Clan has become a highly visible fixture in Winnipeg’s troubled North End, and their co-founder and current executive director is rapidly attaining the status of a folk hero.
Favel (pronounced "Fay-vul") agreed to sit down with the Free Press this week to talk about what makes him tick and why he’s obsessed with cleaning up the streets in his community.
The interview took place in his favourite restaurant, Angelo’s Chip Shop at 902 Main St., where owner Angelo Tiginagas and wife, Susan, have been flipping burgers since the early 1990s.
"He’s a nice guy, but can be like a drill sergeant. You have to be," Angelo tells a visitor before Favel arrives. "My best description — he’s got a presence about him. He stands out from everybody else.
"He’s got charisma. He’s the big bear of the Bear Clan. He’s a hero for the North End, a saviour. The bottom line is, he’s cleaned up the North End, and all the businesses really appreciate what he’s doing. If he wasn’t doing it, who would?
Chimes in his wife, Susan: "He’s super, super nice and when you’re around him, he gives you that good vibe. He always orders the same thing — he’s a cheeseburger with mustard and ketchup only."
As if to prove her right, Favel calls the restaurant to say he’s running a little late, and places an order for his only-the-basics burger.
Minutes later, stuffed into of the eatery’s small booths, the first thing you notice about this former trucker and convict are his burly arms, decorated with multiple tattoos.
His left arm features three bears, two ravens and a feather. "They’re Haida art," he says. "I like West Coast art."
On his right arm, there’s aging ink of an Indigenous man. "I always tell everybody it’s my uncle, but it’s not. It’s just an Indigenous man. A friend of mine did it for me in my late 20s."
Throughout a 90-minute interview, the leader of Bear Clan Patrol Inc. rarely smiles, but his rough edges fade away as he talks passionately about what the volunteer safety patrol is doing to make life easier for residents who see drugs and violence on a daily basis.
A softball question about his favourite food — "I’m good with burgers and fries, but you can’t build a strong body on it" — leads to a surprising revelation about his health.
Late last year, he was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, a potentially deadly disease in which sugar can build up in the body, leading to everything from blindness to kidney failure to limb amputations. The disease is far more prevalent in Indigenous populations.
"It runs in my family," he says. "My father died in 1985 at age 34 of diabetes. My grandfather, all of my uncles and some of my aunts and cousins have it. My grandfather got a sore on his foot, then lost his foot, then lost his leg, then died. He was 75.
"I’ve lost 50 pounds since October. I attribute that to the diabetes. I was 280 pounds last summer, exercising all the time. Now I’m 230 pounds. I’m lean but I don’t have the muscle mass I had."
He is committed to eating better and exercising more to get on top of a disease that has made it difficult for him to slip into his size 10 1/2 shoes and hit the streets to lead the volunteer patrols since November.
Asked about the "Papa Bear" analogy, Favel rolls his eyes. He is even less pleased when asked whether he qualifies as a hero. "I’m just a guy from the North End, man," he says. "I grew up in Elmwood. I’ve been here for the last 25-30 years now. I’m a concerned community member. I want to see better for my community.
"I walk out of my house (on Stella Avenue) every morning and I’m in the North End and I see the issues. I wouldn’t be comfortable not doing something about it."
He spent three years studying sociology and philosophy at the University of Winnipeg — as if that was gonna get me paid" — but his career path saw him hit the highways as a professional trucker.
"I own my own semi," he says with a sense of pride. "I still have it. I was a trucker for 15 years, but the needs of the (Bear Clan) organization started to interfere with my ability to be on the highway. Seeing the need in the community, I decided to dump the truck for a bit. It’s kind of my safety net. I have that to fall back on."
He’s been married for 23 years, with three children — "two girls and a boy, all grown" — three grandchildren, and "one more on the way."
From his wallet, he pulls out time-worn photos of his mother and father. "My father and his family were from Peguis," he says. "My mother was a schoolteacher. My father was Indigenous and my mother was white.
"I was born in Scarborough, Ontario, in 1968. My mother was the most influential person in my life. She was a constant support for me and gave me a stable base to work from. When I acted like an idiot, she didn’t tell me to go away. She loved me."
Favel speaks frankly about mistakes he made as a young man and how they helped shape his need to give back to the community he loves.
"Drugs and weapons were always my downfall. Never violence. I just liked to possess weapons I wasn’t supposed to, and I liked to sell drugs I wasn’t supposed to. Violence was never part of the equation," he says, revealing he has a criminal record with four convictions.
"I spent some time (behind bars) but not a great deal. I did some weekends in Headingley as a young man for impaired. I did some time in the youth centre for a youth charge."
He became a community activist because he was sick and tired of his family confronting drug dealers and johns seeking prostitutes on an almost daily basis.
"I woke up one morning and my neighbour was peeing on my fence from his porch, because he didn’t have any water in his house. It was shut off," he recalls. "My first response was to get angry and hostile, then I thought about it and recognized this was part of a larger problem — my neighbours don’t have the things they need.
"I had a john who lived across the street from me. I had a Manitoba Warriors crack house across the street from me... the exploitation that happens in my community happens at the corner of my street. My family could not be outside in the yard without someone slowing down and asking if they wanted to make some money."
That led to him cutting his teeth as a community activist by joining the Dufferin Residents Association. "I decided I was going to be a helper, not a hurter," he says. "I was a drug dealer in my youth and I’ve done my share of stupid things. It would be hypocritical of me to be all super-judgey."
The defining moment came on Aug. 17, 2014, when the body of Indigenous teenager Tina Fontaine, wrapped in a duvet and weighted down with rocks, was pulled from the Red River. Police arrested Raymond Cormier, a drifter and drug user, and charged him with murder, but a jury acquitted him and no one has ever been convicted in her death.
"After Tina’s body was found in 2014, we decided, hey, we’ve got to get the Bear Clan back!" Favel says. "Because of the multiple system failures that led to the death of Tina Fontaine, that’s when I said something more serious has to be done.
"It was time, at a community level, to step up and take back the responsibility of protecting ourselves."
The Bear Clan Patrol — which existed in the early 1990s but had been in hibernation — returned to walk Winnipeg streets in 2015 with a handful of volunteers.
Today, the group has more than 1,500 volunteers in Winnipeg alone, and there are 48 communities across the country that are being served by Bear Clan Patrol chapters, or organizations modelled after the Winnipeg organization.
Bear Clan members do regular patrols Wednesday through Sunday each week in the North End, Thursdays and Fridays in the West End and Fridays and Saturdays in the West Broadway area.
It’s not about catching criminals red-handed; it’s about reclaiming a sense of security in the neighbourhoods and providing whatever help is needed. Along with picking up discarded needles and helping to search for missing persons, they collect and distribute food donations, are equipped with 10 defibrillators and can administer naloxone for opioid overdoses.
"I’ve had to administer naloxone once myself, and one of my volunteers administered naloxone, too," Favel says. "We’re out there to provide for the needs of our community members, especially the women and children. In no way does that involve us chasing down drunks.
"We’re about de-escalating incidents before they become a police matter. We are not trying to replace the police. Our goal is to reduce the need for their services in our community. We’re not security providers. We’re goodwill ambassadors."
It’s about showing young people at risk there’s a better way, Favel says.
"That’s one of the things we’re trying to model here with Bear Clan," he explains. "There are options to gangsterism. You can still have the camaraderie and feeling of family and belonging without committing (serious crimes), without hurting people. You can be a helper instead."
Before leaving the restaurant, he stresses, "I’m nothing without my volunteers. I’m just a crazy guy from the North End."
One of those volunteers is June Buboire, who has known Favel for more than 20 years.
"I met James when I was 18 and he was a bouncer," Buboire says. "I came back to Winnipeg two years ago and he invited me to walk with the Bear Clan Patrol."
She’s been doing that for two years, and it has given her life purpose, she says.
"James is not a superhero or anything like that, but he does what he can for the community; he’s saved a lot of people.
"I know (because) I’m one of them."
Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.