He lived on the shore of Hudson Bay in Quebec’s most northerly Cree community, but Isaac Kawapit was no stranger to the modern world. He had a Facebook page as well as an MP3 player to satisfy his love of music, from heavy metal to gospel. Even his nickname – the White Wizard – was drawn not from native lore but from fantasy fiction’s The Lord of the Rings.
And yet he was known to his community as a “master of the land,” a hunter so skillful that he never came back empty-handed and could bag game while companions had their backs turned.
Dedicated to his heritage, he rose to national prominence six months ago as the white-clad, staff-wielding wizard guiding a group of young protesters as they travelled south 1,600 kilometres by snowshoe in the depths of winter to a raucous rally on Parliament Hill. Organized by his nephew David, the trek was a bid to re-engage with Cree tradition and support the growing Idle No More movement.
On July 13, mere months after the celebrated Journey of Nishiyuu, Mr. Kawapit was discovered lying near a shed back home in Whapmagoostui, the community of 950 that, with Inuit neighbour Kuujjuarapik, is billed as the only place where Canada’s “two First Peoples live side by side.”
Mr. Kawapit leaves three children, Billy, Agnes and Theodore, as well as his parents, brother and three sisters. He was 47.
Autopsy results have yet to be released, but local chief Stanley George said authorities suspect substance abuse was to blame. “I think he tried everything to hide the pain,” said Mr. George, who knew Mr. Kawapit for nearly three decades.
Torn between two realities, Mr. Kawapit’s love of tradition was not enough to make him immune to the temptations of the outside world. “Isaac had a lot of difficulties in life,” said his uncle Matthew Mukash.
Friends and family say he grew up among problem drinkers, went through a tough divorce, lost a teenaged son as well as the beloved grandmother who raised him, experienced homelessness and unemployment and, for the past decade, battled addiction.
And yet, those who knew him also say he embodied Cree culture and tradition in a way almost no one else in the community did.
On July 21, a crowd of more than 300 said goodbye during an Anglican funeral mixed with Cree traditions. They paid their last respects to someone many of them credit with helping to spark a rebirth of Cree spirit, someone they feel will inspire future generations to reconnect with their roots.
“A lot of people feel like we are starting to lose something here,” said Matthew Iserhoff, who was related to Mr. Kawapit by marriage. “With the journey of the Nishiyuu, it’s reawakening a lot of people.
“Kids are going out in the land now.”
Isaac Kawapit was born Feb. 5, 1966, the eldest of five siblings. Local residents say that, because his mother and father drank, he went to stay with his grandparents, who spent most of the year in the bush, living in a cabin in winter and tepees in summer.
His grandfather, Mr. Mukash said, taught him how to hunt, a skill that is greatly respected but now rare among younger members of the community.
While others of his generation left to study in Ottawa or Montreal, Mr. Kawapit clung to his roots. As an increasingly technological world seemed to lurch ahead without him, he returned to the bush, spending several months each year about 35 kilometres from town. “He found his balance by being out on the land,” Mr. George said.
He was “a master,” said Mr. Mukash, coming back from the wilderness laden with ptarmigan, goose and partridge for family and friends.
“Whether it was a beaver, an otter or a porcupine, whenever he went hunting, he never came back empty-handed,” Mr. Iserhoff recalled.
Those who saw him in action say they are still in awe, both of what he did and the way in which he did it.
On one occasion, he took a caribou with such distinction and grace that the story has become almost legendary.
“He took a shot and he turned around, went to the caribou and, so it wouldn’t be painful, stabbed it in the heart,” Mr. Iserhoff said. “It was so natural and, at the same time, supernatural.”
He also had an amazing ability to spot animals where fellow hunters saw none. David Kawapit, the 18-year-old organizer of the Nishiyuu trek, said that during a recent fishing trip he was about to cast his line but swung his rod too far back and accidentally snagged his uncle’s bag, hooking into a ptarmigan he had no idea was there.
“I didn’t know you killed one of those,” he recalls saying.
Mr. Mukash remembers a similar incident while hunting goose with Mr. Kawapit in 2011. After walking a while without luck, he realized he had lost Mr. Kawapit, who reappeared minutes later holding several birds. Mr. Mukash was astonished.
“When he got to me, he had his hunting bag full and I said, ‘What happened?’ And he said, ‘You went by a lot of ptarmigan and some goose and partridge.’ ”
This connection with nature was Mr. Kawapit’s education and greatest success.
He never made it to high school and was on welfare most of his life, said his cousin Rachel Kawapit, but he held various odd jobs, including in carpentry and construction. For some time, she said, he worked as a cell guard at the town police station and as a security guard at the local sports arena.
A lot of the work he did, however, was unpaid. “He would walk in the community and offer anyone to help them fix up their Hondas [gas generators] or their Ski-Doos,” Ms. Kawapit said. “He was a gifted man.”
He was known to help anyone in need, never attracting attention to himself, just as he let few people know about his demons.
“He was struggling with his life and yet he would always come in with a smile like he had no worries,” Ms. Kawapit said. “He didn’t have much material things – he had the clothes that he wore and yet I never heard him complain.”
Her favourite memory of her cousin was playing hockey together in the bush, using foam from old mattresses as goalie pads. (According to nephew David, he liked the Edmonton Oilers and Washington Capitals but hated the Montreal Canadiens.)
Mr. Kawapit married in 1992 but was hit hard when, nearly a decade later, the relationship broke up and he lost custody of his four children.
In 2002, “he took another turn down when his grandmother passed away,” Ms. Kawapit said. And the death of his son Kyle to pneumonia and heart complications five years later was a further blow.
Mr. Kawapit was known to be protective of the young. When Mr. George was a boy, he said a teenaged Mr. Kawapit was “a protector, a guardian.” He would wait outside a local pool hall to shoo away bullies who picked on the future chief and his friends.
He also fought to spare others his struggle with alcohol, which now permeates the community. David Kawapit was small and surrounded by alcohol at home when his uncle took him and his sister to live with their grandparents.
That memory and his uncle’s reputation as a humble and trustworthy man of the land prompted David to ask him to act as a guide for the trek to Ottawa.
“He taught me how to hunt, how to live off the land and how to survive,” said David, who killed his first goose in the company of his uncle.
Even attempting the 68-day trek was seen as a sign of Mr. Kawapit’s dedication – despite his skills as an outdoorsman, he was burdened with his demons, and knee trouble made carrying a staff a necessity. “I may likely die along the way,” he told Mr. Mukash, “but I’m going to do this for the young people.”
During the walk, he helped the younger men cook, kill porcupine to send back home, and avoid thin ice while crossing lakes and creeks. He boiled water, dried wet socks over a fire, and massaged David’s sore ankle with heated rocks.
He also advised the walkers on how quickly to travel so they wouldn’t sweat or get too cold. He helped them set up camp, showed them the best types of wood to throw in the fire – and something else. “Isaac was the one keeping us together,” David said. “He was the glue to all of us. He kept us sane.”
On Feb. 5, the day the White Wizard turned 47, the other walkers woke at 4 a.m. to surprise him by singing Happy Birthday to You. They celebrated by relaxing that day, David said, playing cards and listening to the radio.
Throughout the journey, the “icon of the land” updated his Facebook page, reporting lows as well as highs, often referring to himself in the third person. “Having trouble sleeping,” he wrote on March 14, “can’t close his eyes, pray for him.”
“He had this little MP3 player,” David said, and would listen to metal, rock, country and church music long into the night. He loved the moose burgers delivered to the group by an army of volunteers, and called his family members to update them on the journey’s progress.
Still, years of substance abuse had taken a toll, forcing him into a two-week break in February. He headed home to rest and, by the time he returned to lead the walkers into the nation’s capital, their numbers had ballooned to more than 200, with thousands more awaiting their March 25 arrival on Parliament Hill.
He seemed happy but overwhelmed, friends say, likely experiencing culture shock. David said Mr. Kawapit “became himself again” on the journey. But the day after the triumphant entry to Ottawa, he left and “went back home, to where he belonged.”
Back in James Bay, he seemed tired, cousin Rachel Kawapit said, but he kept talking about how many good people he had met along the way.
“He was very much touched by the attention he got,” Mr. Mukash said. “I saw him many times going through Facebook and having tears in his eyes.”
At the end of the great adventure, though, after the cameras and onlookers had gone, Mr. Kawapit, like his fellow walkers, had difficulty settling back into the life he’d left behind, and fell prey to old bad habits.
“All of us got hit hard after the journey ended,” David said. “We all went into a state of depression.”
They had become a family during the long walk, David said, with Mr. Kawapit as their father figure. “If someone felt sad about home, he told us, ‘We’re doing this for home.’ ”
Which may help explain why Mr. Kawapit has become a “hero” to local kids, Mr. George said. Following his example, they are beginning to unplug from modern luxuries in favour of Cree traditions, seeking a balance between their past and this country’s present.
“One of my grandchildren actually said, ‘Hey guys, let’s go for a walk – I’m going to be the white wizard,’ ” Mr. George said. “And his friends asked him why, and he said: ‘Because I’m the person who knows all about the land. And I want to be the person who guides these kids.’ ”
Even as his abuse worsened, friends and family say, Mr. Kawapit remained peaceful, humble, caring and helpful, always wearing a smile.
For David Kawapit, it is perhaps fitting that the original White Wizard lost his battle only after making his mark.
“He did what he was sent to do in this world.”