It was a triumph of the next generation, a beacon pointing toward the future. Sixty-eight days and 1,600 kilometers after setting out from the remote James Bay Cree community of Whapmagoostui First Nation, seven young aboriginals arrived in Ottawa on March 25 and stood proudly on the steps of Parliament before cheering crowds.
Along the way the “Original Seven,”—David Kawapit, 18; Geordie Rupert, 21; Raymond (Bajoo) Kawapit, 20; Stanley George Jr., 17; Travis George, 17; Jordon Masty, 19, and Johnny Abraham, also 19—as the Nishiyuu walkers became known, had picked up roughly 270 more, as well as thousands of supporters worldwide, and captured the imagination and hearts of many.
"I took this walk for healing, [for] the challenges we face,” said David Kapawit, the young man who was inspired to initiate the journey by Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence’s fast in protest of government policies. He spoke to the crowd in Cree. “I am so honored to see you all here in support. This moves me so much."
The simple message of unity and pride of the Cree, Algonquin, Inuit, Mohawk and other youth who undertook the trek resonated far beyond the Native world. The response also revealed that the inspiration behind the Idle No More movement is far from played out.
“We need to heal as a nation,” said 11-year-old Abby Masty, who had joined the group with her parents along the way. “For the women and for the youth. To show our respect for the wisdom of our elders. And that is why I asked my parents to go on this journey.”
The walkers’ main guide, 46-year-old Isaac Kapawit, had accompanied them for the entire route, earning the moniker the White Wizard.
“I want to thank the original youth that started out. And all the youth that joined us in every community along the way. That made this special,” said Kapawit, speaking in Cree.
At least three thousand people listened on the lawn in front of the Parliament buildings on what became a bright sunny spring day in the capital. It was a remarkable show of support for a workday, and the walkers were visibly moved. Politicians were there in abundance: Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations; Spence, whose fast in December and January inspired many in Idle No More and gave inspiration to the Nishiyuu journey; Matthew Coon Come, Grand Chief of the James Bay Cree Nation, and even some members of Parliament.
Noticeably absent was Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was in Toronto at the same time as the rally on a photo op with Chinese pandas. The choice of priorities did not go unnoticed: The Twittersphere, for one, lit up with tidbits such as, “So how long did these pandas have to go on a hunger strike to have Harper fly down to meet them in person?” Internet memes abounded.
But that did not take away from the elation of the walkers or their supporters.
“They walk,” said Chief Stan George, “to deliver a strong message to other First Nations that the Cree Nation of Quebec are true keepers of their language, culture, traditions, and more importantly, [that] we respect the sacred laws of our ancestors. The time to stand united is now.”
George’s son was one of the original six walkers, and at the rally the chief beamed with pride as he walked down the avenues of the capital, his son beside him, along with the other five who had come from the far north. Behind him walked 500 more people, and applauding supporters lined the streets.
Distance is a hard thing often to quantify, but it was clear to all in the crowd exactly how far these youth had come. The originals came from Whapmagoostui, the northernmost Cree community in the James Bay Region, its 800 residents reachable only by plane. They had started out on January 16, the dead of winter. Temperatures had dipped to –50 Fahrenheit, not counting wind chill.
By the time they drew near Ottawa they were no longer in wilderness but were walking alongside highways, escorted by police, with passing cars honking in support. The terrain had changed, but as each walker addressed the crowd—many speaking in their mother tongue, through translators—they stood in stark contrast to the south, where languages are more endangered, and few can speak their Native language. Also evident was the shyness, and humility, of these youth. Along the way south from ‘Whap,’ as the community is nicknamed, passing through Cree and Algonquin territories, they inspired others who were driven to join them simply because of the positive message of the journey.
As youth after youth spoke—and it was the young people's remarks that were given precedence—addressing the politicians and chiefs, a single eagle circled high above Parliament Hill. Soon people were pointing upward, marveling. It was clear that this was a unique journey—a gift to all, Native and non-Native, from youths who had embarked upon something both intensely public and deeply private. Each had their own inner journey to confront, and that came out when they spoke to the crowd of greeters, speaking of suicide, addiction and abuse, and dear ones lost. But also revealed were strength, determination, hope and that particular, stubborn, idealism that only youth can inflame.
Each of the nearly 300 walkers who stood on the steps of Canada's Parliament building on March 25 brought a message. It was a message that fit under the rubric of Idle No More but went beyond. It said that hope and direction for the future comes from the youth. Adults helped, guiding and offering advice, but it was the youth who embraced the journey, who had trudged through bitter cold, with aching feet, traveling seemingly endless miles, toward a brighter future.