Natives from the remote and impoverished First Nations on the western side of James Bay have trekked more than 1,000 kilometres to Ottawa to urge politicians and their own chiefs to start talking about treaty rights.
The group was led by Danny Metatawabin, a close confidante of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, who staged a 42-day hunger strike a year ago to make the same demands.
When the treaties were signed in previous centuries, “the king, at that time, said he would look after and care for the First Nations people across Canada,” Mr. Metatawabin said in an interview on Monday after he and his comrades completed their journey on the steps of the plaza outside Parliament’s Centre Block.
“Sadly, that never happened,” he said. “The government officials had a different intent at that time. It was to take over the lands and the waters for their own benefit, for resource development.”
Federal politicians are not the only target of the walkers’ message, Mr. Metatawabin said. “With this spiritual journey, we are reminding our people again, we are reminding the chiefs,” he said, “that we have to have that round-table meeting, we have to have that discussion with government officials, with the Prime Minister.”
At the start of her fast, Ms. Spence insisted that a treaty meeting be held between chiefs, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and Governor-General David Johnston. In January, 2013, Mr. Harper agreed to sit down with representatives of the Assembly of First Nations, but Ms. Spence refused to participate because many chiefs were excluded and Mr. Johnston was not present. She gave up her hunger strike 10 days later without her demands being met.
Since then, the federal Conservative government has maintained a rocky relationship with Canada’s First Nations. An alternative group to the AFN was formed last summer with a specific mandate to press for treaty negotiations. Fights are brewing over plans to build a pipeline from Alberta to the west coast through traditional native territory.
And despite a recent promise of hundreds of millions of new dollars annually for aboriginal education, First Nations in many parts of the country remain skeptical – and in some cases are outright opposed – to a proposed First Nations Education Act. That legislation was among the many reasons the walkers cited for taking their long overland trip through the dead of winter.
“We have not participated in any due process, and that’s why we were sent here by the elders of our area, not only our area, but elders across Canada,” Mr. Metatawabin told the small crowd, including many friends and family members, that turned out to greet him and his group.
“The time to reconcile aboriginal issues is now,” he said. “And we all know what all those aboriginal issues are, from lack of infrastructure, housing, missing and murdered women and girls, the list goes on and on. We have to reconcile those now to live in harmony on a nation-to-nation basis.”
In some ways, the walk echoed a 1,500-kilometre trek taken last year by six young people and a spiritual guide who set out for Ottawa in February from Whapmagoostui, Que. Calling themselves the Nishiyuu, they waded across land through slush that was sometimes up to their knees with their toques frozen to their heads. At night, they slept huddled together in tents. They were greeted by more than 1,000 people when it was all over.
The walkers from Attawapiskat and surrounding communities, who were called the Omushkegowuk, did things in a less spartan manner. They followed the winter roads and the highways. Each evening, they were picked up and taken to a warm shelter where they ate and slept before resuming their trip the next morning in the place where they left off.
But covering an average of 30 kilometres a day was physically and psychologically challenging, said Mr. Metatawabin. “The empowerment from the people and the prayers from the elders is what kept me going,” he said. “The walkers that walked with me kept me going. When I was slow, they came behind me and they empowered me to keep walking.”