It’s St. Patrick’s Day in Nelson and the party is well underway as a diminutive woman slips through a crowded bar.
Cat Spears approaches a tipsy women with a smile and supplies. How are they feeling? Do they want some juice or candy? Condoms or snort straws? Are they comfortable with who they might go home with?
Then she asks the question that brought her here: “What does consent mean to you?”
“It means that both people are on the same page,” responds one young woman, and Spears looks relieved by the simple but acceptable answer.
Spears, who works as a family support worker at Kootenay Kids, is in charge of a new Interior Health-backed group called Mama Bears of Baker Street. Once a month, on days when the city’s bars are likely to be busy, Spears and a handful of others dressed in pink walk Nelson’s streets checking on women.
Usually the interactions are brief. The volunteers carry snacks and various items like hand warmers, cup condoms and fentanyl test strips. Occasionally they ask if the woman feels safe going home with someone, or if they need a taxi called.
No one seems to mind, and Spears is always thanked for checking in. One man even fist bumps her. “You’re a beautiful human being,” he says.
Impromptu chats about consent — which in relation to sexual activity the Government of B.C. defines as “a freely given enthusiastic yes, ongoing, continuously discussed, and can be taken away at any time” — might interrupt the good times.
But Spears isn’t surprised by how educated and gracious people are, even when they are intoxicated.
“Nelson’s known for being such like a drunk festival little town, but it’s also known for the harm reduction, and that demographic of some really strong, vocal people. Nobody was really blown away, really shocked that we were out there.”
Spears calls consent her passion. For over a decade she has been a consent ambassador at Shambhala Music Festival, runs classes teaching consent at Kootenay Kids, and perhaps once a year advises women who say they’ve been drugged and sexually assaulted at a Nelson bar.
There’s need for her work. A study released last year by the Canadian Women’s Foundation found 55 per cent of respondents didn’t understand the role of consent in sexual activity. Police-reported sexual assaults in Canada also rose by 18 per cent in 2021, according to Statistics Canada.
Despite her efforts, Spears wondered if there might be something more she could do. Maybe, she decided, she could start checking on women before they run into problems.
“I could take it even a step further and be out there saying, ‘Hey, you’re walking a little bit wobbly there. Where are you going? Who are you going with? Do you need a cab? Are you leaving?’”
She considered New Year’s Eve, and decided she would go out on her own. Three local bars gave prior approval to visit, and from 10 p.m. to last call Spears and a few others spent the night making sure women were safe.
The night was a success, and earlier this year Interior Health provided $5,000 in funding that Spears uses on supplies and a small stipend to volunteers.
The Mama Bears of Baker Street aren’t the first such group to take consent education into bars. Good Night Out Vancouver, a non-profit society, leads sexual violence prevention with festivals and bars.
But Spears’ group is new to Nelson’s night life, and hard to miss with their pink bandannas and the word consent in bold on their backpacks. She hopes they become ubiquitous, and welcomed, by the city’s bars and patrons.
“I want women to know that their safety is important.”