With two fugitives at large and last seen in northern Manitoba, members of the Bear Clan Patrol boarded a plane. They left the streets of Winnipeg behind and landed squarely in the middle of a manhunt playing out on wild and challenging terrain.
It was Friday afternoon when James Favel, the founder and executive director of the Bear Clan Patrol, got a call from the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs asking for help in protecting and supporting the remote Indigenous communities at such a tense time. By then, the RCMP had said they believed the teenage fugitives – who are suspects in two deaths and have been charged in connection with another, all in B.C. – were in the Gillam area, more than 700 kilometres north of Winnipeg. A vehicle used by the teens was found burned and discarded in nearby Fox Lake Cree Nation.
By noon Saturday, seven Bear Clan Patrol members were on the ground in northern Manitoba, scouring the densely forested land and liaising with residents. Come Sunday, a group of patrollers told the RCMP they had spotted two men in York Landing that fit the descriptions of suspects Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, and Kam McLeod, 19.
In a phone interview from Winnipeg, Mr. Favel said while the Bear Clan Patrol does not typically search for fugitives, “being in harm’s way isn’t necessarily new to us.”
Mr. Schmegelsky and Mr. McLeod have been charged with second-degree murder in the death of Vancouver man Leonard Dyck, 64. The pair are also suspects in the deaths of American Chynna Deese, 24, and her 23-year-old Australian boyfriend Lucas Fowler. Charges have not been laid in their cases.
On Monday, the RCMP said officers searched the York Landing area overnight and through the day, but had not been able to substantiate the tip. “As such, the RCMP is not in a position to confirm that these are the wanted suspects,” the federal police service said in a statement.
Gillam and its neighbouring First Nation communities were, and still are, on high alert. But thanks to the Bear Clan Patrol, civilians in the area have additional support – and eyes – on the ground.
The Indigenous-led group usually patrols Winnipeg’s downtown streets, de-escalating situations before they become police matters, searching for missing persons, distributing food, reducing crime and building a sense of community. This time, though, the Bear Clan Patrol is working to fill a gap in the policing of underserved remote communities, according to a statement last week from the assembly, which represents 62 First Nations and requested the group’s help.
The group’s presence and reported sighting of the two men has raised its profile. After winding down following a three-year stint in the 1990s, the Bear Clan Patrol was reborn in 2015 under the leadership of Mr. Favel, a 50-year-old grandfather who turned his life around after a string of drug-related convictions. Chapters have since emerged in cities and communities across the country, as far east as Montreal and as far west as Port Alberni, B.C., which happens to be where the two fugitives are from.
The roots of the Bear Clan Patrol’s revival can be traced back to 2002, when Mr. Favel was arrested for the last time. Out on bail and facing the prospect of three years in prison, he left his job as a bouncer at a bar and got a Class 1 driver’s licence. By the time Mr. Favel went before a judge for sentencing, he was working for a local trucking company. The officer who had arrested him stood by him in court and is now the chair of the Bear Clan Patrol’s board.
Mr. Favel, a member of Peguis First Nation, served a conditional sentence in the community and created a new life for himself. He bought two adjoining properties in Winnipeg’s North End, and looked around.
“My neighbours didn’t have it as good,” he said. “I felt compelled to try to improve the lives of those around me.”
He was also spurred to act by the case of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old Indigenous girl who fell through the cracks of numerous social-services safety nets and was killed in the summer of 2014.
“That was the last straw,” Mr. Favel said. “We had to do something.”
At the time, he was chairman of the Dufferin Residents Association, a North End neighbourhood group. The city agreed to allow for $900 that had been sitting in the association’s account to be diverted to a walking patrol. The city’s Bear Clan Patrol has grown from 12 volunteers in 2015 to more than 1,600 today and has nine paid staff.
The Bear Clan Patrol’s head office is known as “the den.” Wearing neon vests, volunteers head out from there and two other locations for a few hours most evenings. On Fridays and Saturdays, they stay out later. Images of the volunteers are posted to the Bear Clan Patrol’s Facebook page each day. That way, if anyone from the public spots someone with a history of violence against women or sexual crime – the two types of crime that preclude a person from participation – organizers can be made aware.
Winnipeg was a natural home for the Bear Clan Patrol, Mr. Favel said. It has the largest Indigenous population of any major city in Canada. Manitoba has the highest incarceration rate in the country; about three-quarters of its inmates are Indigenous. Indigenous children are also disproportionately represented in the child-welfare system. Tina Fontaine was one of them. Her home reserve, Manitoba’s Sagkeeng First Nation, is considering launching its own Bear Clan, Mr. Favel said.
Police services across the country have for years been working to improve relationships with the Indigenous communities they serve. Mr. Favel said the Bear Clan Patrol assists in that process, acting as a liaison between officers and residents, if need be. The Winnipeg Police Service Endowment Fund is among those that has provided grants to the group, which today has charitable status and relies on public and private funding.
While Bear Clan Patrol members in Winnipeg go about their usual work in the urban core, those who flew to northern Manitoba will continue searching the area and going door to door to check on families.
“In the inner city, this is what we do,” Mr. Favel said. “We’re shoulder to shoulder with our community members.”
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