07/29/2019 13:59 EDT | Updated 07/29/2019 14:59 EDT

Who Are The Bear Clan Patrol, The Group Helping RCMP In York Landing Manhunt?

The Winnipeg-based volunteers provide support to First Nations.

John Woods/The Canadian Press
Bear Clan Patrol volunteers are seen here in Winnipeg on Nov. 5, 2016. At least seven members of the organization are helping with the manhunt for the B.C. murder suspects believed to be in northern Manitoba.

A massive manhunt for a pair of teenage murder suspects in northern Manitoba took a turn Sunday after a Winnipeg-based group made an unlikely sighting.

A volunteer with the community safety group Bear Clan Patrol spotted two men in York Landing, Man., who matched the descriptions of Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, and Kam McLeod, 19. The two suspects are wanted in connection with a string of murders in British Columbia. 

On Monday, RCMP couldn’t confirm the sighting of the wanted men, but they did say they received a “credible tip” in the York Landing area. Members of the community were asked to stay indoors.

Bear Clan Patrol exists to provide personal security to Indigenous communities “to keep the peace and to assist community members,” according to its website.  It has grown from 12 volunteers in 2014 to 1,600 today, serving 51 communities across the country. The Bear Clan exists as “an effort to restore to our community the capacity to address our own needs,” the group’s website said.

Bear Clan Patrol executive director James Favel told HuffPost Canada on Monday the unconfirmed sighting was “one in a million.”

“They were doing circuits around the town and when they got to the garbage dump, at 4:15 (local time) yesterday afternoon, they did spot two men who fit the description of the wanted suspects and they immediately reported that to RCMP,” Favel said.

“I didn’t really believe we would have contact with these guys. I figured that would be something the police would do. It’s just fortuitous that they were in the right place at the right time.”

The community leader said the two men “bugged out” when they saw they had eyes on them, and they bolted across the road to a sewage lagoon before disappearing into the dense forest. RCMP was immediately notified, but the suspects are still at large. 

Bear Clan Patrol was asked by Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs to help secure a remote First Nation community not normally protected by police or band constables, according to Favel. Last week, the suspects were spotted in Gillam, Man., home of Fox Lake Cree Nation.

“We need to find them and identify them,” Cpl. Julie Courchaine told reporters on Monday. “We have not made contact with them.”

John Woods/The Canadian Press
Bear Clan Patrol executive director James Favel, seen here in Winnipeg on Nov. 5, 2016, says his organization provides a supportive role to law enforcement.

Favel said his group of volunteers are in the York Landing area to support Indigenous people in northern communities where police forces are few and far between.

Seven members were sent to the area, including three to York Landing.

“Our role is one of support. We’re eyes and ears. We do not chase people down. We don’t go hands on. We’re not violent, not confrontational,” Favel told HuffPost Canada. 

“We are not armed. We are peaceful civilian safety patrol for our community in the north end of Winnipeg.” 

Watch: A timeline of events in the northern B.C. murders. Story continues below.

The volunteers are dealing with an area that is 200 square kilometres in “very rough terrain,” which includes swamp, bog and muskeg, Favel said. It’s also near the Nelson River, one of the longest waterways in Canada. The area, nearly 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg, is known for being home to wild animals, including polar bears. 

Favel said it’s possible for the suspects to survive in the “unforgiving territory” of northern Canada, but he’s not sure if they have the knowledge and skills required after nearly a week on the run.

“If they know what they’re doing, there is food available there, and they could do fairly well. I mean, the locals survive up there just fine,” Favel explained. 

“If they were at the dump scavenging food, then they’re obviously not making use of what’s available in the forest.”

Members of the Bear Clan Patrol are the volunteers who had previously assisted in the search for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Communities also turn to the Bear Clan for help dealing with drug issues, such as the methamphetamine crisis in Winnipeg.

There are special youth patrol nights, but most patrols include volunteers who are 18 and older. The patrols operate on a drop-in basis and are seen as a model of Indigenous activism.

Last November, Gov. Gen. Julie Payette met members of the Bear Clan Patrol and praised the work they’re doing.

“It reassures me that when we get together as a community, when we put our effort together and our will to help others, we can achieve anything and that is a lesson for us all,” Payette said, The Canadian Press reported.

Winnipeg-based journalist Jenn Walker tweeted that she was willing to bet the Bear Clan Patrol volunteers would be the ones to catch the alleged killers. 

“After the sighting, nobody wants to leave, everybody wants to stay in place,” Favel said. Now, he wants the rest of Canada to keep these volunteers and locals in their prayers. 

“We hope for a peaceful resolution as soon as possible so everybody can get back to their normal lives,” Favel said, adding the volunteers are “tired” but “working hard.”

RCMP are urging anyone with tips or information about the suspects to contact police. So far, more than 200 tips have been provided to police.

“We’re still looking at every possibility in this investigation,” Courchaine said.