On a cold January evening in 2017, a group of change-makers met, planting the seeds for a grassroots movement that has transformed Brandon’s downtown community.
That night the Brandon Bear Clan Women’s Council was created, braiding together a strong group of people who were united in compassion and empathy for some of Brandon’s most vulnerable population.
Brandon Bear Clan Women’s Council is a mix of Indigenous and non-Indigenous women working together to create positive change in the community, said chairperson Diedre Gregory.
“There were many different people who wanted Bear Clan here. There were people who were doing different parts of this process, but I do know it was watching Winnipeg [Bear Clan] and seeing what they were doing and wanting that for our community. It was also what was happening during the time, which was a lot of sexual violence downtown in the core area,” Gregory said. “Winnipeg Bear Clan were taking care of their people. We looked at their model and thought it was time to bring [that] here.”
Gregory is one of 13 council women looking to create change in the Wheat City.
“At the beginning, it was really exciting for the community, for us, and we were building relationships.”
While the council was a desired and needed resource in the community, it took time and commitment to build relationships and trust with the people they work with.
Bear Clan gained momentum after its first patrols and has continued to establish its place in the community, Gregory said. The non-profit is growing its volunteer base, grants, partnerships and the supports it offers.
“We really built a good reputation in Brandon that I feel like people will come to us now for guidance and support with different things and partnerships,” Gregory said.
The weekly patrols have helped connect people and foster relationships and capacity for services in the community.
“I feel like the intent of safety and helping our people, that has never changed — it’s still the same,” Gregory said. “For most of the women on council, this is our heart work. This is the work we do because we are women, we are mothers and we are empathetic. We care about people and this group of people we serve, there is a gap, they’ve fallen through the cracks ... as Bear Clan, we are just trying to fill the gap here in Brandon.”
The work of the council does not take place only while wearing Brandon Bear Clan vests during patrol. Gregory said they are looking out for people every day of the week and taking action to provide aid to those in need as much as possible.
“Not many people will be comfortable with the population we serve, but I am. Those are my people,” Gregory said. “We are here because of them. We are helping them and it doesn’t matter how many times we help them … that’s our job. We’re all there as volunteers. That’s what we sign up for.”
Women’s Council secretary Lisa Ramsay has been with the non-profit since its inception. She participated in patrolling in the second week of Bear Clan’s existence and joined the council the next year.
The group was brought together by Tammy Hossack, who called a community meeting to share what she had learned about the Bear Clan model in Winnipeg.
It felt like a good fit, Ramsay said, because downtown Brandon was struggling at that time. There had been multiple assaults that were worrisome and it became clear authority figures could not solve the issue on their own.
“People needed just other people, not necessarily those authority figures intervening,” Ramsay said. “The people need people who care. We have no authority over people, there’s no need for us to use power in our work. The only way we would ever use power is to influence systems to meet the needs of people.”
After attending the initial community meeting, she was excited about the concept but also hesitant to get involved because she knew it would be a big project to take on.
“I went and got involved and fell in love with it. I’ve been knee-deep in it ever since,” Ramsay said with a grin.
The Women’s Council looks after the overall operations of Bear Clan.
“It’s specifically Aboriginal women and non-Aboriginal women working together for a common cause,” Ramsay said. “Women are pretty powerful when they get together.”
They work from the hearts, not just their heads, to make the community better, she added.
They listen closely to community needs and do their best to advocate on the community’s behalf. She added if they are unable to meet a need, the council works to find out who can help.
While the Bear Clan is most well-known for its weekly patrols Thursday and Friday evenings, there is lots of daytime work taking place in support of the community.
Basic tasks like managing donations are huge; cleaning and organizing storage is a massive undertaking. They also work closely with donors and partners to continue growing their capacity.
Bear Clan is often asked to provide presentations to the community about who they are and what they do to service clubs, church groups and others.
“We get calls throughout the week on a daily basis to pick up needles and to attend to people who are worried about somebody they notice in the community, so we have outreach and we go check it out,” Ramsay said. “There is work every day.”
The work of the Women’s Council is part of the larger reconciliation movement, Ramsay said, and is centred on the idea of people looking after people, paired with taking an active role in improving the community.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls on Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to work together to foster change at the grassroots/local level, she said, and Bear Clan embodies this call.
While they distribute food and essential items to help people survive on the street, the key factor of the non-profit’s success has been the relationships and dignity they are able to share with those they encounter each week.
The Women’s Council is continuing to grow what it does in the community, and its hope is to one day expand patrols to more than two days a week in the future.
“We know community members tell us we need to be out in the community — and we would like to be out more often,” Ramsay said. “It’s one of those jobs you hope to work yourself out of a job, but I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon.”
Ramsay praised the guidance of the Grandmothers’ Council for the role it plays in helping the Women’s Council navigate complex decisions and conversations.
Grandmothers’ Council member Deb Tacan said she and two others provide help and support to Bear Clan to ensure the wellness of members.
This can include hosting sharing circles, helping with ceremonies, sharing teachings in the community and other practices aimed at maintaining the mental well-being of Bear Clan members. Together they provide kindness, comfort and compassion.
“The grandmothers are kind of like the ones that hold everything together,” Tacan said, smiling. “The grandmothers are like the teepee. If you look at the teepee, there are 15 poles in the teepee and every pole has a teaching. When they put them all together, that provides that teaching for that household … when you look at the teepee, that represents the grandmother. When you put the cloth around her once the frame is set up, it’s kind of like her shawl or skirt.”
The Grandmothers’ Council embodies this practice by laying a foundation for the Women’s Council to help the community. Tacan said their goal is to help guide the group.
“When you go your grandmother’s, it’s a good place to be. That’s kind of what it is like,” Tacan said.
The guidance provided by the Grandmothers’ Council focuses on the spiritual side of life, Tacan said, and works to help foster kinship between members.
“When we look at grandmothers and the roles they play in our families, it’s about kinship and connection,” Tacan said.
“Our grandmothers are the ones that hold everything together. They have that ability to just be there and provide that strength, that light for others.
“The Bear Clan is known and they’re known for meeting people where they are at. There is no judgement.”
Women’s Council member Kim Longstreet manages fundraising initiatives for the group and volunteer intake. These two pieces allow the group to keep the organization on the go and expand its reach in the community.
Bear Clan currently has more than 460 volunteers in its database, including a core group of volunteers who attend each patrol.
“We have all these people that are willing to come out with us and understand the community on a different level, that means a lot,” Longstreet said. “We started out with bare bones. Everything we’ve had is because of the work we have done, the outreach to the community and the conversations being able to get people to understand what we are trying to achieve … I think people take comfort in knowing that we are out there — but that doesn’t just happen.”
It takes countless hours to ensure the patrols can take place twice a week and other outreach can occur.
It remains their goal to continue expanding connections in Brandon, but they need to feel comfortable that people downtown have what they need.
“The comfort people have from us being downtown, that needs to be felt by all of the community,” Longstreet said.
The other goal of the council is growing at a sustainable rate and establishing its own space that people can come in and out of. She added the group is grateful to Brandon Friendship Centre and the support they have shown Bear Clan in letting the organization use the space as a home base.
“Our mission is to stay and maintain until we feel we can move on to something else,” Longstreet said. “That’s why Bear Clan has been so successful; we don’t just do a half-baked project. If we’re going to take something on, we’re going to do it 100 per cent.”
During COVID-19 lockdowns, Bear Clan worked to expand its reach in the community. It was disheartening as there were still people sitting in the cold because they had nowhere to go since everything was closed.
“The Bear Clan didn’t miss a beat. We continued on,” Longstreet said.
The Women’s Council worked closely with community partners to find a way to ensure people could come in from the cold, and this led to changes in the community, she added.
Gabrielle Jubinville recently celebrated her one-year anniversary with the Women’s Council as the youth representative.
She first became involved with Bear Clan through the Brandon Friendship Centre three years ago.
“I really loved it,” Jubinville said. “I really enjoyed what they do.”
She is grateful for the experiences she has had with the group.
“They just motivate me to be better and be the best I can be. They work so incredibly hard and they really love doing what they’re doing,” Jubinville said.
One of the most powerful aspects of the Women’s Council is the purposeful and thoughtful focus on Indigenous perspectives.
Letting women take the lead on societal change is a critical aspect of Indigenous culture, Jubinville said. This practice ensures they lead with their hearts and act based on what people tell them they need.
Jubinville praised non-Indigenous allies for supporting this movement.
To create true change in Brandon’s downtown, she said, Indigenous people need to be able to access systems developed by Indigenous people.
When Indigenous people get involved in helping their community, it can be challenging work because they are stewards of the land — everything they do and want to achieve is for the greater good and this mission sits centred in their hearts, she said.
“We are never thinking of ourselves, we are only thinking of others. That’s just how women are too; our Indigenous women are never thinking of ourselves, we are always wanting to help,” Jubinville said. “Each and every one of these women busts their butts in their own ways to make the world go round for our Indigenous people who are on the streets.”
Working collaboratively, Women’s Council members have cultivated a respectful environment focused on making life better for people.
The group has encouraged Jubinville to explore how she wants to help the community, especially when it comes to youth.
It is a gift to be able to create safe spaces for other people, but it takes time to gain momentum and see these changes come to fruition. However, it is almost impossible to be in a space to help people without getting the support you need — this is what makes Women’s Council so powerful, Jubinville said.
The group is concentrated on consensus and finding solutions through collaboration. Everyone’s perspective is taken seriously and this makes for positive change in the Brandon community.
“Bear Clan, the council, we’re helping each other out so we can help everyone else out,” Jubinville said.
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Chelsea Kemp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun