How natives find power in a long-distance walk

OTTAWA — Special to 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)

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.

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.

“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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