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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 ...

“I realized that life is beautiful,” she says. “I realized that life is simple.”

She also knows that walking burns more fat than jogging and builds bone mass. It reduces the risk of glaucoma and Alzheimer’s disease. It boosts endorphins and improves balance. Walking can reduce brain shrinkage. It alleviates symptoms of depression. It can help to regulate post-traumatic stress disorder.

It has the power, in other words, to help people overcome environments that are making them sick.

Along the route, Dr. Vollant stops at schools, talking to students about everything from the importance of nature to such issues as racism, addiction and suicide – traumas he knows first-hand: His mother, a victim of sexual abuse at residential school, drank herself to death. And he once put a gun into his own mouth, and came close to pulling the trigger.

But rather than dwelling on the downside and dangers of reserve life, he prefers to focus on healthy choices and education, as well as asking kids to set their sights high.

“Hopefully at least one of you will become a doctor,” he jokes to youngsters in Kitigan Zibi, an Anishinabe reserve at the halfway point of our journey, “because after all of this walking, I’m going to need an orthopedic surgeon to replace my hips and knees, and I’ll only let an aboriginal doctor operate on me.”

It’s not mission impossible: Years ago, a Kitigan girl heard him speak, and now Dr. Raven Dumont is launching her medical career in Montreal.

Dr. Vollant says he understands what motivates Idle No More, but he feels the movement’s lack of specific goals or defined leadership will hamper its ability to address the most acute challenges facing aboriginal communities.

“With chaos, we won’t get anywhere,” he says. “I think we need a more clear direction.”

He also emphasizes that just asking for help is a mistake.

“When I see patients in my village, they often want a pill or an operation to take care of their problems. They don’t want to change anything about themselves – and that’s what they have to do.

“My walks are all about individual and community empowerment.”

Fellow visionary David Kawapit has come to a similar conclusion. The Journey of Nishiyuu was considered a political event, but he says health benefits alone made the walk a success. Several participants vowed to stop drinking and doing drugs, and to lead more active lives, while he has left behind the anxiety attacks and bouts of depression that had plagued him.

“The other goal, unity, is going to take a long time,” Mr. Kawapit says. “But we have to keep pushing. Don’t depend on somebody to do something for you. If you want something to happen, you have to start it.”

To that end, he plans to look for a job so that he can help to support his mother and younger siblings.

Dr. Vollant, meanwhile, has seen enough pain and suffering to know that a positive vision alone cannot solve a crisis.

But he is determined that one day aboriginal Canadians will be “masters of their own destiny” – and well aware that every long journey requires a first step.

Mobilization

Early in the 20th century, the Indian Act prevented aboriginal people from mobilizing, says Peter Kulchyski, professor of native studies at the University of Manitoba. But revisions in the 1950s opened the door to public protests, and the walking tradition was reborn. Here are some notable examples.

1974

The Native Caravan Trek to Ottawa draws people from across the country, many of whom walk to rallying points before taking a train to the capital. It ends when the RCMP, leery of U.S. “radicals,” forcibly remove demonstrators from Parliament Hill.

1979

A year after the American Indian Movement mounts the Longest Walk from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., in 1978 to support tribal sovereignty and bring attention anti-native legislation, Sandra Lovelace Nicholas leads a 100-mile women’s march to Ottawa. The target is provisions under the Indian Act that penalize women who marry non-aboriginals. In 1985, the law is changed and, 20 years later, she becomes Canada’s first female aboriginal senator.

2008

The same year the AIM mounts a 30th-anniversary long walk to support protection of sacred sites and environmental sustainability, British Columbia activists organize the first annual Walk 4 Justice. It follows the Highway of Tears, an 800-kilometre stretch of Highway 16 from Prince Rupert to Prince George where as many as 44 young women, almost all aboriginal, have gone missing.

2012

Six “women in action,” including Jeannie Ehaloak, mayor of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, walk 220 kilometres from Umingmaktuuq to Cambridge Bay in support of friends and family battling cancer and others who have lost their battles. They raise more than $80,000 for research.

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