WINNIPEG - The phone rang one dreary Tuesday afternoon last month. It was one of those days when the whole world seemed to be in some a state of anger, disillusionment, and hopelessness. I looked at the number with an 819 prefix wondering if I should answer it—probably a telemarketer, I thought. But I did answer and was pleasantly surprised to hear the voice of my old friend, Bill Casey. Bill had been one of my favourite people when I was on the Hill as an MP--he was a man of true “sunny ways”, always ready with an acute and refreshing observation that made me laugh.
Bill, who served a term under Mulroney, was later re-elected under Harper, came to blows with him over the Atlantic Accord, was kicked out of caucus, sat as an independent, was re-elected as an independent, resigned his seat over an illness, was then asked by Justin Trudeau to run as a Liberal, did, and won.
He and six other MP committee colleagues were in Winnipeg for two days on a fact finding mission to explore the issues surrounding addiction and mental illness. He wanted to go to dinner. “But it won’t be till 8:00,” he said. “We’re going walking with the Bear Clan Patrol.”
“Can I come?” I blurted out like an eager kid. The Bear Clan Patrol, its leader James Favel and the volunteers who support him, are on my heroes list. It was quickly arranged, and I was there well before the appointed time of 5:45 as the Patrol likes to go out in the daylight when they can still see the needles that they so diligently pick up every night. Last year, they collected over 40,000!
It was a busy night, what with celebrities showing up for the walk - -the media were on site and there were extra volunteers, two from the City Pet Control department. I was shown down the basement of the building the Clan now occupy and given a backpack stuffed with rescue supplies and treats for the kids – penny suckers and granola bars. A sharps container was thrust into one of the outside pockets on the backpack.
The MPs soon showed up and we were off, first posing for the nightly photograph that the Patrol tweets and which I normally retweet with a message of encouragement about them being my heroes. It was a cool night with a sharp wind, but nothing like the nights the Patrol volunteers face all winter when the temperatures dip to minus 30 and lower. This doesn’t stop them from trekking out five days a week on their mission. There are three marshalling points: 584 Selkirk, the University of Winnipeg and 195 Young street. They run the Selkirk walk Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, doing late night patrols on the weekend. The do the West End Patrol starting from the University on Thursday and Friday and West Broadway gets a Friday and Saturday visit.
Through their dedication and hard work, the patrols have now been instituted in 43 cities across Canada. All participants are volunteers. See why they’re my heroes?
We headed out, six to eight in each group, fanning out over a several block area. Using walkie talkies, they co-ordinate their trek and keep each other appraised of what’s happening. If one group encounters trouble, reinforcements are only a block away. At the end of each block, they wait until each group can be seen, then head out again, down the back allies where the meth users do their thing and toss the dirty needles away. Collections of garbage are likely hiding places for sharps, but that’s not all we encounter. James picks up a multi-coloured package that looks like a candy holder. This is an ingenious device for cooking drugs. The packaging can easily attract youngsters. “If they stick their finger in it looking so see what it was, there will be residue,” he points out. We find a dangerous looking butcher knife and one of the troop runs it back to headquarters.
James talks as he walks, worrying about what he encounters every night, knowing there is little he can do but try to protect the young ones and rescue those who are in need. He knows a safe injection site will do nothing to save lives or stop the problem, but, he says, “at least it would keep some of the needles off the street.” Some of the guys have ideas about how to control the needle flow and they discuss this briefly. “Better to call it a supervised injection site,” remarks one, hoping that would be more acceptable to government.
Many of the troop know first-hand what the issues are. Some of them have used in the past and have clawed their way back to sobriety. They all know there are no simple answers to addiction, and that dealing with social ills is never going to be easy. But what they do understand is that it is better to meet the problem head on rather than pretending that a police force can control human needs for self-medication.
They are right, of course. It’s part of nature. Humans aren’t the only ones who use substances for whatever reason. Animals and birds get deliberately drunk – even some insects are attracted to alcohol. A few animals and humans get addicted. We cannot change that and when this predilection is combined with poverty and pain, then the compulsion toward the use of mind-dulling substances increases.
We carry on, block after block, searching through garbage heaps, picking up needles, their glinting sharpness revealed by the melting sun after a winter under the snow. A notice comes though about a missing child and volunteers are dispatched to look into the report. My friend Bill, in his flimsy Halifax coat, is beginning to get very cold as that sharp wind penetrates and chills.
“We’ll stop at the school and get warm,” says James, and we all troop gratefully across the playing field of Children of the Earth School. There is a drop-in centre here and the place teems with youngsters, who clamour for treats and suckers.
After a brief warm up, we strike out again, this time on our way back. Suddenly a young woman stumbles from one of the housing units, no coats, bare arms, no gloves, her hands red with cold. She can’t feel it. She is high on meth. “Where’s your coat?” asks James. “It’s wet,” she says pointing to a plastic bag she is carrying. “How did it get wet?” James asks. “I don’t know,” she answers. “When did you last use?” asks, James. “This morning,” she says.
One of the troop drags some woolen gloves onto her reddened hands. “It’s from all the Javex,” she mumbles about how red and raw they look. MP…., rips off her cashmere scarf and drapes it around the girl’s shoulders. We all want to hug her, to warm her. “I’m pregnant, too,” she apologizes. I have to stare at the sky.” I was going to university,” she notes, but something happened. I can’t hear the rest.
James or someone finds a sweater, then a jacket. They cover her up and James puts his arm around her shoulders, getting someone to take her bags. He guides her away to be cared for nearby. Nobody says anything. What can we say without weeping?
Those who walk encounter these sorts of things every night. They hope that their example will inspire the younger ones to take control of their destinies and their community. But it is a wonder the Bear Clan can continue. They don’t ask for much, but they need money for rent and it would be very helpful to have a one or two full time staff to keep the office open. “We got about $200,000 this year,” says James. “But it only allows us to buy things. There is no support for management of the program.” For several months, the Bear Clan operated out of a storage box on the street because they had outgrown their borrowed space.
The problem is that most government programs are project driven. Nor can the Bear Clan effectively fund raise as they have applied for but have not yet received charitable tax status. Also, they need a bookkeeper just to help them manage what they do have, but they lack the resources and contacts.
We stumble back to headquarters, and removing our yellow jackets, we leave, already forgotten, and rightfully so, as the Bear Clan prepares to carry on its grim task. The work they do compels them forward, fueled by a gut feeling of urgency ignited by Tina Fontaine’s death. This cannot happen again. But it will.
We want our indigenous populations to become self-supporting and self-reliant. Tories believe in a hand up to help people restart their lives. There must be a fit here. I hope we can find it.