'Nishiyuu Walkers' complete 1,600 km trek to Ottawa
Published Monday, March 25, 2013 10:21AM EDT
Last Updated Monday, March 25, 2013 10:39PM EDT
A group of Cree youth have arrived in Ottawa after trekking more than 1,600 kilometres through bush, snow and frigid cold temperatures in support of the Idle No More movement.
Since starting the walk – called “The Journey of Nishiyuu”-- in mid-January, the seven-person group has picked up hundreds of supporters, many of whom marched into the capital with them Monday. Organizers say around 270 walkers finished the journey to Ottawa.
As the group embarked on their final march to Parliament Hill Monday afternoon, hundreds of supporters filled the steps beneath the Peace Tower to greet and cheer them on.
The walk began when David Kawapit Jr., 17, decided to trek to Ottawa to rally for better conditions for Canada’s First Nations.
After arriving, an exhausted Kawapit said the completed journey shows that youth can have a voice.
“This is to show the youth have a voice. It’s time for them to be shown the way to lead. Let them lead the way,” he said.
The group – now known as the Nishiyuu Walkers – met Canada's Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt. They invited him to visit them in their northern Quebec community.
The minister accepted and said he plans to visit in the summer.
Earlier on Monday, Valcourt said he wanted to talk to them, listen to their concerns and explain what the government is doing to improve First Nations’ living conditions.
"I'm going to be listening," he said. "This is about informing myself about their concerns."
Inside the House of Commons, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May lead a standing ovation for the walkers.
May called the walkers’ journey “awe-inspiring.” She also noted that Prime Minister Stephen Harper was not there to meet the group, greeting a pair of pandas that had arrived in Toronto from China instead.
“It says a lot that Stephen Harper isn't here, that he's greeting the pandas," she said. "It says a lot that we need to move heaven and earth to meet First Nations on a nation-to-nation basis with respect."
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo told CTV News Channel that the walk was an example of the sentiment that exists among First Nations youth.
“We’re in an incredible moment where young people are pushing for change,” he said. “It feels like we’re indeed in a moment of reckoning and it’s being led by the young people.”
Atleo said that while this year’s budget saw “unprecedented” recognition of First Nations issues, the “investments just were not there.”
“It feels like we’re beginning to be heard and the words are being spoken, but they need to be followed up with real action, with First Nations leading the way,” he said.
Atleo said that the walkers’ “epic” journey will serve as an inspiration to First Nations leaders moving forward.
“My optimism and hope particularly springs from the energy of the young people who are leading the way forward.”
The walk began in the remote village of Whapmagoostui, Que., located on the shores of the Hudson Bay. The walk’s name means “The Journey of the People” in the Cree language.
The original group, comprised of Kawapit, five other supporters and one guide, set out on Jan. 16 on snowshoes, towing their supplies along the way.
Initially inspired by Chief Theresa Spence's Idle No More hunger strike, the journey is also meant to send a strong message to Ottawa about unity among the Cree and other First Nations people, participant Jordan Masty said.
Masty, 20, joined the original seven walkers in Wemindji, Que., on Feb. 3.
"If we are going to speak as the official voice of the Earth, then we have to work together in harmony," he said.
The group also aims to show other First Nations and Ottawa the dedication the Cree Nation of Quebec has to preserving their language, culture, traditions and the sacred laws of their ancestors, according to a website dedicated to The Journey of Nishiyuu walk.
The long trek proved difficult for many of the participants. Last week when the walkers arrived on the Kitigan Zibi First Nation reserve, nearly two dozen were treated for foot injuries.
Three walkers were later sent to a hospital in Maniwaki, Que., for treatment.
Members of the group range between 17 and 21 years of age.
With a report from CTV’s Daniele Hamamdjian in Ottawa and files from The Canadian Press