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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 ...

The following March, along with a police-officer cousin and a companion, he covered 430 kilometres from historic Old Fort Bay on the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Natuashish, halfway up the Labrador coast. Since then, there have been six treks with another eight planned. These days, he arrives in a community on foot – and people listen.

Aboriginal history is filled with tales of people who walked great distances to bring about some kind of change, says Leanne Simpson, a scholar and storyteller from the Alderville First Nation on Rice Lake, about 150 kilometres northeast of Toronto.

By walking, they could socialize, strengthen family bonds and engage in diplomacy, and “the same things that motivated my ancestors to walk are motivating people now.”

According to Ms. Simpson, who teaches a course on indigenous resistance at Athabasca University, long marches are “much more than a tactic or a strategy. … Indigenous people have long rallied against erasure – erasure from the land, erasure from Canadian consciousness. Putting our bodies back on the land can be very powerful.”

Peter Kulchyski, a native studies professor at the University of Manitoba, says, “These walks tie into non-violent, passive civil disobedience. They can be traced back to Gandhi.”

They also can forge links that at times cross cultural boundaries, offering what Ms. Simpson describes as “an opportunity for all Canadians to join in and walk alongside. This type of relationship isn’t mediated by the mainstream press or politics. And that’s one of the ultimate goals: connection.”

In fact, says Leo Baskatawan, 33, who chained a copy of the Indian Act to his waist last summer and dragged it from Vancouver to Ottawa: “These types of walks, they’re not exclusively indigenous things.”

He says he did less walking as an Anishinabe growing up in Northwestern Ontario than he did during two Iraq tours with the U.S. Army. And he was inspired less by his ancestors than by Terry Fox, whose mission to cure cancer was arguably closer to that of Stanley Vollant.

Five days into the expedition to Rapid Lake, Dr. Vollant is walking down a snowy spruce-lined logging road, clad in a handmade white canvas jacket, black running tights, with a pair of ski goggles perched on his canvas hat and Gore-Tex gaiters shielding his shins.

Pulling a toboggan laden with camping gear, he reaches the top of a hill, and falls into stride with teenagers Sunny Moar and Devan Petiquay, also hauling sleds. The boys are high-school students from Wemotaci, a reserve near La Tuque, a pulp and paper town 125 kilometres up the St. Maurice River from Shawinigan.

The conversation begins in French, but before long is sprinkled with their Atikamekw and his Innu. “We’re comparing swear words,” Dr. Vollant says with a grin, his long grey-streaked hair tucked away in a bun. “Our languages come from different places, but they’re very similar.”

Our route through Atikamekw and Anishinabe land follows one that the Innu traditionally travelled to recruit allies for their fights against the English.

“Only this time,” Dr. Vollant says, “we’re on a mission of peace.”

He interrupts his professional life for Innu Meshkenu because he thinks that walking can instill courage and determination – one step, he says, pausing for a bite of moose jerky, at a time. The project’s goals are relatively straightforward: Believe in yourself, have a dream, make it happen.

“Walking is a traditional native means of transportation,” says Mr. Fortin, an instructor in Chicoutimi’s outdoor recreation and adventure tourism program. “It’s accessible, you don’t need a lot of equipment, you can do it throughout the year, everywhere.

And you don’t have to cover great distances.

“We want walking to become the social norm in these communities,” he adds. “We want people who take their ATV 300 metres to go to the grocery store to look crazy.”

Nathalie Dubé is living proof that walking is good for a person’s health. In 2010, having separated from her spouse and drinking heavily, she began walking – to and from work as a school secretary and with a friend in the evening.

She got sober, swapped red meat for fish and nuts, and lost 100 pounds. Now 47 and extremely fit, she is making her second trek with Dr. Vollant and always walks near the front of the pack.

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