Original Published on Aug 03, 2022 at 23:40

By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The Bear Clan will start to receive annual government funding for the first time, Manitoba’s justice minister announced Tuesday — before he joined a pack of volunteers for an evening patrol of streets in the North End.

Steinbach MLA Kelvin Goertzen, who oversees the justice file, visited the inner-city safety initiative’s Selkirk Avenue den to tout the province’s commitment to providing $100,000 annually to support operations and ensure the organization has predictable funding in the future.

Treasurer Brian Chrupalo said the core funding is a first of its kind for the Bear Clan.

The community organization typically relies on donations and grants from all levels of government in order to equip staff and volunteers with items ranging from sunscreen to sandwiches to hand-out to community members throughout patrols.

“This will help us go a long way,” Chrupalo told reporters, during an evening news conference.

“We are a small, grassroots group of volunteers. You’ll see our volunteers outside. Those people are here volunteering their time, for whatever reason — and bless their hearts for doing it, but the core dollars that we have (will) keep the lights on.”

Manitoba also announced an additional allocation of $100,000 from the Criminal Property Forfeiture Fund, bringing the tally to $200,000. This one-time sum is for the purchase of new safety equipment and other supplies for volunteers, including puncture-resistant gloves, naloxone, flashlights, multi-tool pocket knives and first aid kits.

Originally created by a trio of organizers in 1992, the Bear Clan aims to provide security to residents in and around the North End and downtown Winnipeg “in a non-threatening, non-violent and supportive way.”

The Indigenous-led initiative resumed patrolling city streets in 2014 after a hiatus. Since then, it has grown to encompass regular safety patrols across five Winnipeg neighbourhoods. There are approximately a dozen employees and roughly 275 regular volunteers at present.

Volunteers can often be seen walking in groups at night and on weekends, dressed in signature high-visibility vests with supplies in hand or in wagons. On Tuesday, nearly 20 volunteers — Goertzen included — walked down streets and alleys near Selkirk Avenue to greet area residents, distribute water bottles and clean up discarded needles, among other tasks.

Ahead of the photo-op walk, Goertzen acknowledged that violent crime has risen across Winnipeg and North America following the initial arrival of COVID-19 and related public health orders. Police are only part of the equation when it comes to both preventing incidents and ensuring Manitobans feel safe in their communities, he said.

“We need community members, who are able to outreach and connect with people in a different way than police officers are intended to do. Bear Clan does that exceptionally well,” the justice minister added.

A summer spate of serious crime involving random victims has both made headlines and prompted the union that represents frontline officers to criticize the chief of police for his categorization of the situation as typical.

The latest alarming incidents include: the Canada Day stabbing of a Ukrainian refugee who accidentally bumped into a group of men near The Forks; a random attack near Grant Park Shopping Centre that sent a senior to hospital in critical condition on July 12, and an attempted assault with a knife on a Winnipeg Transit driver, who narrowly escaped injury via bus window late last month.

While overall crime decreased last year, new police data show that violent incidents have been on the rise in Winnipeg.

There were nearly 11,000 more violent crimes — a category that encompasses sexual assault and uttering threats, among other incidents — reported to the Winnipeg Police Service in 2021 versus 2020. The total figure represents a five per cent increase from one year prior and a six per cent hike when compared to the five-year average.

In police Chief Danny Smyth’s opening remarks in WPS’ latest statistical report, he cited a resurgence in assaults as the driving force and called the number of violent crimes involving knives “notable.”

“Stabbings, across the board, are up, both for youth and adults,” said Const. Jay Murray, a public information officer, at a recent news conference during which he indicated it is difficult to pinpoint a specific reason for the trend.

“Knives are readily available, they’re something that you can get from any household, they can be bought relatively easily and I think that speaks to how common stabbings are in the city.”

This item reprinted with permission from the Free Press, Winnipeg, Manitoba