It started with six young people and a spiritual guide who headed out on foot in January from a tiny native community on the shores of Hudson Bay, and ended with nearly 300 walkers on the steps of Parliament Hill.
Inspired by the hunger strike of Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat and the call to action of protest movement Idle No More, the Journey of the Nishiyuu – the Journey of the People in Cree – was intended to raise awareness about the problems facing the people of Canada’s first nations.
The 1,500-kilometre trek began as the first walkers set out from Whapmagoostui. The weather that day was -50 C.
Over snow and ice, with mukluks and wooden snowshoes, the young people and their 49-year-old guide headed south toward Ottawa, relying on the support of people they met along the way. As they travelled, others joined them.
They slept huddled together in tents. When it was cold, their tuques froze like helmets. Sometimes they were up to their knees in slush.
One of the walkers was 11-year-old Abby Masty. “My mom asked me why I wanted to walk,” she said when the journey ended on Monday. “I said I wanted to help people because of all the women who are suffering, and elders.”
THE FINAL DESTINATION
When the hundreds of walkers arrived at Parliament Hill, cheers erupted from the throng of more than 1,000 people who were waiting to greet them.
Many of the young travellers carried flags of their first nations. As the celebration began, a giant eagle, as if on cue, soared overhead and circled behind the Parliament Buildings – prompting applause from those below.
Most of the young walkers who took to the mic to recount their journey did so in their traditional language. David Kawapit, the 18-year-old Cree from Whapmagoostui whose vision started it all, breathed deeply and grinned.
“There are no words to describe how I feel,” Mr. Kawapit said through an interpreter. “This is not the end, this will continue, and we started with a walk.”
THE STAFF CARRIER
Jordon Masty joined the journey on the day after it began. He was friends with the original seven and they asked him to come along.
“I said okay and it really inspired me,” said Mr. Masty, 20. “And I am really honoured to be with them.”
He was also chosen to carry a ceremonial staff that had been given by the Algonquins to the Cree. “I had to take care of it like a human being,” he said.
The weather was a torment and the long distances were a struggle, Mr. Masty said. And then came the final, emotional last steps. “We didn’t really expect this many people to show up,” he said. “But our brothers and sisters came from all different directions.”
IDLE NO MORE’S VIEW
Jessica Gordon, one of the founders of the Idle No More movement, said the walkers are an inspiration to first nations people and other Canadians. They are saying “it just takes a simple step and they can move forward in whatever direction they choose,” Ms. Gordon said in a telephone interview with The Globe and Mail.
There are many other walks being planned by first nations groups, Ms. Gordon said. “It does speak a lot to our culture and our connection to the land.”