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A look at Bear Clan Patrol, a neighbourhood watch group in the Manitoba manhunt

Bear Clan executive director says members reported possible sighting to RCMP
WATCH: Bear Clan executive director says members reported possible sighting to RCMP.

It was a group of Manitoba volunteers that caught a glimpse of two men matching the descriptions of the suspects in the northern B.C. murders.

Members of the Bear Clan Patrol were patrolling the town of York Landing, Man., on Sunday afternoon when they spotted two men matching the descriptions of Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, and Kam McLeod, 19, the longtime friends wanted in connection with three murders in British Columbia.

RCMP have so far been unable to substantiate the sighting but say officers remain in the area.

The news of the sighting launched a frenzy on social media.

Those who already knew of the Indigenous-led neighbourhood watch group commended the volunteers for their work.

WATCH: Bear Clan Patrol offers support during Manitoba manhunt

Bear Clan Patrol offers support during Manitoba manhunt
Bear Clan Patrol offers support during Manitoba manhunt

READ MORE: B.C. murder suspects stopped, released by band constables before manhunt: councillor

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Others, meanwhile, had questions.

“Who are the Bear Clan?” asked one Twitter user. “They sound so bada–.”

The group’s fundraising effort started picking up after the development on Sunday. GoFundMe said their donations spiked by $4,000 and counting.

Here’s a look at the patrol group and the role they’re playing in the Manitoba manhunt:

Who are they?

The Bear Clan Patrol is a grassroots initiative born out of a need for added safety and support for Winnipeg’s Indigenous community.

It was first formed in 1992 in Winnipeg’s North End but went on hiatus after a few years.

James Favel, the volunteer safety group’s co-founder, said the group is a “boots-on-the-ground” effort to protect women, children, the elderly and vulnerable members of the community.

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WATCH: Focus shifts in manhunt for B.C. murder suspects

Focus shifts in manhunt for B.C. murder suspects
Focus shifts in manhunt for B.C. murder suspects

“It was said, back in the day, that you could punch a hole in a window on Selkirk Avenue and the police would be there in about four or five minutes, but you could hit your wife and they may not come at all,” Favel told Global News in a previous interview.

He said the group’s second incarnation grew out of tragedy — the death of Tina Fontaine.

The 15-year-old Indigenous girl’s body was found at the bottom of the Red River in 2014.

“For me, that was the last straw,” Favel said.

Favel went to the river that day to see if he could offer help to investigators and was met by a reporter. He told the camera that he was thinking of reviving the Bear Clan Patrol.

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It developed quickly from there.

WATCH: Bear Clan’s James Favel says members reported possible sighting to RCMP

Bear Clan executive director says members reported possible sighting to RCMP
Bear Clan executive director says members reported possible sighting to RCMP

“That went out on the six o’clock news, and the right people on the other end heard that,” he said.

“Just like that,” he said, with a snap of his fingers. “So fast, things came together.”

The group official reformed in July 2015. Currently, it operates out of the Ndinawe Drop In, located on Selkirk Avenue in Winnipeg’s North End.

Over the years, other cities across Canada have founded their own versions of the Bear Clan Patrol.

What are they doing in the Manitoba manhunt?

Bear Clan Patrol was requested to lend help to the ongoing manhunt in remote northern Manitoba by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

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The group co-ordinated teams to fly to First Nations communities last week.

READ MORE: ‘Military-style survival’: How B.C. murder suspects may be faring in the harsh Manitoba wilderness

The patrol groups were called to the area to help “provide a sense of security” to the communities facing “a great deal of uncertainty,” Acting Grand Chief Kent said in a statement.

Members have been in Fox Lake Cree Nation, War Lake First Nation and York Factory First Nation, where residents have been urged to keep their doors locked and children close.

It was York Factory where Bear Clan members reported what RCMP have described as the first “credible tip” in the case in several days.

Travis Bighetty, a Bear Clan co-ordinator, spotted who he believes to be Schmegelsky and McLeod near the edge of the community. The pair were reportedly scavenging in a dumping ground when they passed by and ran into the woods when Bighetty spotted them.

WATCH: Tips pour in as manhunt wears on for BC murder suspects

Tips pour in as manhunt wears on for B.C. murder suspects
Tips pour in as manhunt wears on for B.C. murder suspects

His report spurred the York Landing search effort that is currently underway.

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“The gentleman that they saw, he didn’t have any backpack with him, nothing in their hands, no weapons or anything like that. They didn’t feel threatened at all,” Favel told Global News after the sighting.

“As soon as the guys saw our guys, they bolted.”

Residents of the communities have been asked to be vigilant, and the Bear Clan Patrol is there to provide added comfort.

Who is part of the Bear Clan?

The Winnipeg-based patrol group has about 1,500 volunteers, according to its website.

The backgrounds of each of the volunteers vary, Favel said.

From army veterans to former prisoners and resident doctors, the group prides itself on being open to anyone.

“The full spectrum,” as Favel called it.

READ MORE: How police dogs help manhunts in places like northern Manitoba

He admitted to having run-ins with the law himself.

“I want to convey that to the rest of the world that just because we’ve made these mistakes in our lifetime doesn’t mean we should be branded that way for the rest of our lives,” he said.

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“They made the conscious decision to change their lives and offer something back to the community. Why would we stand in the way of that?”

The group has been a part of numerous high-profile cases since reforming in 2015, including the death of Cooper Nemeth, who had been missing for a week before his body was found behind a house in East Kildonan. The 17-year-old disappeared after heading to a house party, and his death rocked the tight-knit community.

WATCH: RCMP go door-to-door searching for tips on teen fugitives

RCMP go door-to-door searching for tips on teen fugitives
RCMP go door-to-door searching for tips on teen fugitives

In the wake of his death, the Bear Clan Patrol was invited to a vigil for the teen. The sheer number of people who came out to honour Nemeth’s life was a signal to Favel that their work is vital.

“Taking back the responsibilities of protecting our own and protecting ourselves and those within our community, this is something the village used to do,” he said.

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“Out of these tragedies comes something that’s healing. So we just keep going.”

His sentiment is reflected in the group’s mission statement, which attributes its agenda to traditional Indigenous philosophies, practices and values.

READ MORE: Northern B.C. murders: What’s involved in a police manhunt?

“With consciousness comes awareness, with awareness comes ownership of personal circumstances, and with collaboration comes change,” it reads.

“It is possible to redevelop our community according to our own values and vision.”

What else do they do?

The group participates in a number of other community-safety related initiatives, such as providing rides and escorts to people in need and cleaning up discarded needles on city streets.

Their non-threatening, non-violent presence on city streets has grown into something in and of itself.

READ MORE: Out of the woods: How police could narrow in on the northern B.C. murder suspects

The group operates on a drop-in basis Wednesday through Sunday starting at around 5:30 p.m.

Split into three sections of the city, volunteers fan out to help community members as needed.

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The group operates into the early evening — the “key hours,” Favel said — and takes breaks during walks.

“There’s no commitment. You don’t need to feel guilty about not showing up somedays,” he said.

“We’re just there to make sure that everybody is able to get around safe.”