Isaac Kawapit was a humble man who led a hard life in a remote Cree community near the shores of Hudson Bay in Northern Quebec, living largely off the land and relying on his extraordinary skills as a hunter.
But at the age of 46 (though he was also said to be 47 or 49), Mr. Kawapit did something remarkable. In January, he led a group of six young men, aged 17 to 22, on a frigid 1,500-kilometre walk from Whapmagoostui to Ottawa to raise awareness of the problems facing Canada’s First Nations.
By the time they reached the capital, there were 300 walkers and thousands of supporters waiting to greet them and the Journey of the Nishiyuu had become a galvanizing event for young native people across the country.
Mr. Kawapit, the man the walkers called their spiritual leader and their “White Wizard,” was found dead in his northern community on Saturday morning. His body was lying outdoors just a short distance from where his mother’s house once stood.
Family members say he had been homeless, off and on, for some time. But it was Mr. Kawapit’s comfort with the elements that was his defining characteristic and the trait that ultimately brought him national attention.
The news of Mr. Kawapit’s death was broken to the community during the traditional Sun Dance cultural festival. Several of the young people who were on the Journey of the Nishiyuu were among the dancers and they were devastated to learn that the man who had been their rock throughout those months was gone.
Mr. Kawapit has three children of his own and they were also among the walkers. But he was looked up to by all of the youth in his community for his knowledge of the land.
He was one of the traditionalists who left in the fall and did not return until Christmas when the hunt was over. And those who shared his camp said they never went hungry.
“There really could not have been anybody else that could have led those kids all the way to Ottawa,” his cousin Pakesso Mukash, who is a musician and the host of a CBC television show in Cree, said Wednesday. “He mentioned to me that the one place he was absolutely fearless, in a humble way obviously, is out on the land.”
Mr. Kawapit’s extended family did not know the cause of his death on Wednesday. They were waiting for the results of his autopsy. But the news that he had passed away less than four months after the Nishiyuu had become First Nations heroes was an emotional blow to the young people who had walked with him.
“He was the one who guided them in the first weeks and he stayed with them and took care of them and he was a very, very good hunter,” said Sage Mukash, 16, who joined the walk about a month after it started. “He’s my uncle so he meant a lot to me too. He would always make sure if I was okay on the journey and if I needed anything.”
The trek began when David Kawapit, who turned 18 along the way, decided he would walk to Ottawa. He was told to seek the advice of an elder and he turned to his uncle, Isaac Kawapit, who offered to guide him.
Because Mr. Kawapit’s parka was white, and because there was a joke among the young men that they were on a trek that resembled the one in The Lord of the Rings, they called Mr. Kawapit the “White Wizard.”
The seven departed Whapmagoostui in January when it was -50 C, crossing fields of snow and rivers of slush. With mukluks and wooden snowshoes, the young people and their guide headed south toward Ottawa, relying on the support of people they met along the way. As they travelled, others joined them.
When they finally arrived at the Parliament Buildings more than three months later, Mr. Kawapit grinned broadly for hours as one speaker after another paid tribute to the trek and its significance.
The journey continues to resonate.
At the annual meeting of the Assembly of First Nations in Yukon this week, National Chief Shawn Atleo spoke about the “incredibly brave, focused and humble leaders – the young Cree from Nishiyuu.”
Clayton Thomas-Muller, a spokesman for the First Nations protest movement Idle No More, said Mr. Kawapit’s death was tragic.
“The Nishiyuu walkers, through their connection to their elders, through their connection to their culture, were able to do something that, quite frankly, was comparable to the climbing of Mount Everest or the crossing of the Sahara Desert,” said Mr. Thomas-Muller.
“Young native people could see that the impossible was possible,” he said, “and that it was possible through the embrace of our culture and the reconnection to the sacredness of our Mother Earth.”
But the young man from Whapmagoostui whose vision started it all, David Kawapit, may have summed it up best when he spoke through an interpreter to cheering supporters when he finally arrived on Parliament Hill.
“This is not the end, this will continue, and we started with a walk.”