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David Kawapit and company on Parliament Hill: ‘These types of walks, they’re not exclusively indigenous things,’ says a marcher whose inspiration was Terry Fox. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)
David Kawapit and company on Parliament Hill: ‘These types of walks, they’re not exclusively indigenous things,’ says a marcher whose inspiration was Terry Fox. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)

How natives find power in a long-distance walk Add to ...

They are 30 years apart in age, but Stanley Vollant and David Kawapit share a vision.

Quebec’s first aboriginal surgeon, Dr. Vollant is a 48-year-old Innu born in a village on the St. Lawrence River. Five years ago, while visiting Spain, he had a feverish dream in which he saw himself making a long-distance trek through the forest accompanied by young people as well as tribal elders.

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Mr. Kawapit, who is 18 and was born more than 1,000 kilometres away in a Cree village on Hudson Bay, had a remarkably similar experience – in his case, traversing his people’s traditional lands in the dead of winter, much as his ancestors once did.

Both dreams spring from a concept deeply rooted in aboriginal tradition – the power of a long walk – and both have come true, although in very different ways.

Dr. Vollant has launched Innu Meshkenu (Innu Road), a six-year, 6,000-kilometre series of walks he hopes will take him to every First Nations community in Quebec and Labrador.

I took part in the most recent – and largest – trek, which had 60 of us hiking and snowshoeing for 16 days to cover the 380 kilometres from Manawan, an Atikamekw reserve 160 kilometres north of Montreal, west to Rapid Lake, an Anishinabe village in the La Vérendrye Forest Reserve.

Three days after we finished, another group passed through Rapid Lake on foot – participants in the Journey of Nishiyuu (“people” in Cree) – a two-month, 1,500-kilometre march to Ottawa from Whapmagoostui, Mr. Kawapit’s home and Quebec’s most northerly Cree community.

By the time they reached Parliament Hill on March 25, there were 300 walkers who had attracted a drumming and chanting crowd of 3,000. The event captivated the nation and capped a season-long resurgence of Idle No More, the protest movement that has infused aboriginal politics with a new sense of urgency.

Walking to attract attention and rally support has gained popularity since two Anishinabe grandmothers trudged along the shoreline of Lake Superior a decade ago to raise awareness of the threat posed by water pollution.

Now, a group called Youth For Lakes is also near the capital, having covered more than 2,000 kilometres since setting out 45 days ago om March 28 from Winnipeg. And behind it are the Sacred Journey walkers from northern Saskatchewan, who hope to arrive by June 21 in time to celebrate National Aboriginal Day.

Both treks were inspired, like Nishiyuu, by Idle No More and have goals rooted in policy – especially a desire to see the federal government reverse its decision to stop supporting protection of the nation’s waterways.

Dr. Vollant, however, comes to walking from a different direction. For him, it is a way to heal.

Healing is what had brought Dr. Vollant to the Spanish Pyrenees in 2008 – the healer wanted to heal himself.

Drained by his workload (lecturing at the University of Montreal as well as being a busy surgeon) and the end of his second marriage, he was attempting the Camino de Santiago, the legendary pilgrim route across northern Spain to the reputed final resting place of the Apostle James.

Although a veteran marathon runner, he overestimated the pace he could handle and collapsed, able to resume his journey only after spending five nights in hospital, his blisters infected with flesh-eating bacteria.

The dream came as he slept in a mountain refuge. He saw himself on another long-distance trek, but this time accompanied by young people, who were turning away from drugs and alcohol, eating healthy food and learning from tribal elders.

In other words, they were doing what he had tried to persuade them to do for years, flying to communities he could not reach in his SUV to make presentations on healthy lifestyles. Those efforts rarely worked as well as he had hoped – people were wary of an urbanite who had left behind the challenges most still faced.

“His message wasn’t getting through,” says Innu Meshkenu manager Jean-Charles Fortin, an instructor at the University of Quebec at Chicoutimi. “His way of life seemed out of reach.”

So, inspired by his dream, Dr. Vollant tried a different approach, launching his ambitious hiking campaign in October, 2010, by walking, mostly alone, 630 kilometres over 21 days from Natuashish in Labrador to his birthplace, the Innu village of Pessamit, just southeast of Baie-Comeau.

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