Bear Clan Patrol, Indigenous community-watch group. Illustration: Eric Dyck

The Bear Clan: Calgary’s community-watch group

Helping vulnerable Calgarians cope.

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The pandemic has been something of a Catch-22 for the Bear Clan Patrol, Calgary's Indigenous community-watch group.

It has of course been an inconvenience that complicates their outreach work. But it has also made that work even more vital.

"With the pandemic and opioid crisis right now, it's a perfect storm," said Yvonne Henderson, one of several Clan council members who spoke to The Sprawl.

Inspired by similar groups in Winnipeg and Lethbridge, the Calgary collective began their regular walks of city streets in November 2019. They sought to build trust with vulnerable populations in need of support, security, or just a cup of coffee.

The group had only four months of relatively normal work before the pandemic hit and changed everything.

"We didn't get to patrol much in the summer," said Brianna Gordon.

We went out with full hazmat suits, masked up.

Maskwasis,

Council member, Bear Clan Patrol

Even when they did hit the streets, precautions were necessary. "We went out with full hazmat suits, masked up," said Maskwasis, a member who goes by one name.

"Usually before you'd go out and shake people's hands, get up close and talk to them," Maskwasis said. "That's what really changed. It kind of severs that connection to the people right off the bat."

The Clan has seen first-hand how these difficult circumstances have impacted vulnerable Calgarians.

They've had to administer naloxone, which temporarily reverses an opioid overdose, on multiple occasions this year. Henderson noted the importance of their ability to win the trust of sex workers and victims of domestic violence in particular.

"We're not the police, we're not going to arrest you, we're going to give you some resources and help you," she said.

The Clan has seen unexpected effects of the pandemic. Several council members pointed to the federal government's Canadian Emergency Recovery Benefit, which was an economic lifeline for many but also frequently used to feed addictions.

Some people are now being told by the government to repay the money, according to the council members, and many won't be able to.

We’re not the police, we’re not going to arrest you, we’re going to give you some resources and help you.

Yvonne Henderson,

Council member, Bear Clan Patrol

But though it has been a difficult year, the Bear Clan has been successful in winning the trust of many Calgarians.

"It's been incredible seeing the recognition that the Bear Clan has gotten in the community," said Gordon. "When we're out, people know who we are."

In addition to their usual request for donations, the group is running a Christmas hamper drive.

What does 2021 look like for the Bear Clan?

On the one hand, they expect to receive non-profit status in the near future, and have plans to start a 24-hour crisis response team. They have also been part of the conversation about redirecting some of the city's massive police budget towards front-line agencies.

On the other hand, though, the ongoing overlapping crises of housing, addiction and COVID-19 mean that their role will only grow more important, particularly with the return of cold weather.

As Henderson pointed out: "Even though there's a pandemic, the sex trade doesn't stop. Addiction doesn't stop."

Taylor Lambert is the Alberta politics reporter for The Sprawl.

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