New community patrol modelled after the Bear Clan Patrol coming to Northern B.C.

People in Smithers, B.C., will soon be strolling the streets with high-viz vests and first aid kits as part of a new volunteer group modelled after the Bear Clan Patrol in Winnipeg.

Organizer wants to see patrols started in Smithers and other communities along Highway of Tears

Members of the Bear Clan Patrol walk in Winnipeg's North End and assist in searches for the missing. (CBC)

People in Smithers, B.C., will soon be strolling the streets with high-viz vests and first aid kits as part of a new volunteer group modelled after the Bear Clan Patrol in Winnipeg.

The goal is to increase the safety and well-being of people in Wet'suwet'en territory, with a focus on harm reduction and community health.

"Our community was inspired by the Bear Clan Patrol quite a while back," said Mel Bazil, a drug and alcohol counsellor at the Dze L K'ant Friendship Centre Society and one of the lead organizers of getting the new patrol up and running.

The Bear Clan Patrol started in Winnipeg in the '90s and was revived in 2015 after the death of Anishinaabe teen Tina Fontaine. Since then, it's become a model for community safety patrols by First Nations groups in places like Thunder Bay, Regina and Montreal.

Work to start the volunteer group in Smithers is being supported by an Indigenous harm reduction grant from the First Nations Health Authority. Bazil said the patrol will be organized and led collaboratively between the friendship centre, hereditary leaders and matriarchs.

Walkers in the 'Tears 4 Justice' complete their journey from Prince Rupert, B.C., to Smithers for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

The first patrol will begin in Smithers, with an invitation for neighbouring communities of Witset, Houston and Fort Babine to participate in training opportunities so they, too, can start community patrols.

All four communities are located on or near Highway 16, a route from Prince George to Prince Rupert known as the Highway of Tears because of the high number of women and girls who've disappeared or been killed in the area.

MMIWG prevention

So while the focus may be on harm reduction, based on the opioid crisis in B.C., the plan for the patrol is to reduce harms that extend beyond substance use: to keep women and girls safe, to provide mental health first aid to people in distress and to keep an eye on how police respond to people in crisis.

The idea is to have volunteers out in the community when other service agencies are closed to provide a whole host of services and interventions.

Natu Bearwold plans to be part of that volunteer group. 

She was recently hired to work at the friendship centre as a missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls support worker. She said having a presence in the community after hours could provide a critical link for people in a bad situation who might be feeling alone, or that nobody cares. 

"If we can interject early on and provide supports and let people know they are supported by their community and that people do care, then we could possibly be a big factor in prevention of MMIWGs," she said. 

Plan to come up with own name

Since 2015, Winnipeg's Bear Clan patrol has grown from a small group to more than 800 people who volunteer their time and in 2017 logged more than 21,000 volunteer hours.

Bazil said it's inspiring to see how the Bear Clan Patrol is taking ownership over the security and well-being of people in the community.

"We're just encouraging our own communities here to do the same," he said.

"In the past our warriors would protect people, even from themselves if they had to… Patriarchal systems took our responsibilities from our warriors in the past and put them in the hands of police and military and pretty much denied our involvement in our own security."

Mel Bazil is working on setting up a volunteer community patrol in Smithers, B.C. inspired by the work of the Bear Clan Patrol in Winnipeg. Bazil is seen here in his role as a cultural and wellness support at the MMIWG inquiry community hearings in Smithers in 2017. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Bazil said they don't plan to use the same name for the group in Smithers; they plan to come up with their own moniker in the near future.

"We want to personalize it to the territory here," he said.

Part of that personalized approach is the involvement of the matriarchs of the territory and looking at the specific factors in the area that are making or contributing to the vulnerability people are experiencing.

Night owls wanted

Training sessions are being organized. Along with naloxone training, volunteers will get training in mental health first aid, suicide intervention training, de-escalation training, and self defence. Training will also be offered around culturally specific interventions for trauma and empowerment.

Bazil said this training will also provide volunteers with employable skills, for example in supportive housing that's being built in the north.

"So these aren't just volunteer positions for the patrol," said Bazil.

"There's potential in supportive housing for people to also being involved in paid work."

Bazil said they're still looking for "night owls" who are interested in volunteering their time. Anyone interested can contact the Dze L K'ant Friendship Centre.