David Kawapit Jr. is a name that everyone who cares about this country deserves to know.
This young man, a 17-year-old Cree from the isolated community Whapmagoostui on Hudson Bay in northern Quebec, decided it would be a good idea to walk 1,600 kilometres to Ottawa in support of the Idle No More movement. Some of his friends joined him.
So with temperatures apparently hovering at around -50C, he and six others left home on Jan. 16, trekking on snowshoes and pulling their supplies, stopping at communities along the way to tell people that they wanted changes to how indigenous people are treated in Canada.
They want to change the contempt with which they are treated, they want to end the blockage placed in front of them designed to quash their aspirations and heritage, they want to end the mentality of relegation that sees so many First Nations forced into to the lowest status imaginable by the political and cultural mainstream.
The gesture reflected the mood across the country in the middle of January, when Idle No More was in full flow with protests and media attention.
But there was little attention shown to these young people quietly walking through the forests. At the time of writing, I can't find much in the mainstream national press, nothing in the Globe and Mail about it, nothing in the National Post, a couple of stories on CBC North, one story in the Toronto Star — but nothing for the whole country to see.
It's all over social media, mainly via astonishing photos of the young people walking in a long line across frozen open spaces like lakes, with trees — and Ottawa — in the distance. Over the last two months it has been possible to mark the trek south by location on Google and imagine step after step, tree after tree, village after village. The website for the journey is www.nishiyuu.ca.
As the walkers moved slowly through the wilderness they stopped off at other isolated communities, gathering up young people who want to be a part of it. There were plenty and so the numbers grew.
As they entered Lac Simon, Quebec, on March 6, the original seven walkers had turned into 80 people. There was a feast and dance that night and when the walkers left the next morning, their numbers had swelled to 93, with young Algonquins joining them. By March 11, on the last part of the walk, the numbers had risen to over 170.
Marilyne Jerome, the director of education for Lac Simon, 30 kilometres from Val d'Or, told the CBC that her daughter had joined the walkers.
"This is the message of what they want as a future," she said. "The future they want is to know who they are and where they come from."
She said she believed the walkers symbolized part of an Anishinaabe prophecy known as the Seven Fires — which describes the time for aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples to come together.
The talk from the walkers themselves seems to emphasize the warmth of their situation, rather than the cold around them.
Sixteen-year-old Saige Mukash joined the walk in Waskaganish and spoke to the CBC after a month of walking.
"I wanted to walk because I wanted to get better with myself. I wanted to learn how to take care of myself and how to be happy with myself. So far I've learned a lot and I'm really, really happy to be here," she said.
"It's an amazing experience walking in snowshoes, and feeling the pain in your feet and your legs is pretty amazing because that is what our people used to do and we know how much they suffered walking from place to place."
This is a life-changing moment for these young people and those who love them. This is an achievement they will embrace all their lives. It's an epic journey, awesome in the real sense. It's the example of an accomplishment that we ought to wish on any people who want to seize life for themselves and determine their own fates. It's an act of personal reclamation and a declaration.
And it shows that these are ordinary young people who are also extraordinary young people. They deserve respect. They are an inspiration that I want the young people in my community, in my family, to know about.
In a little over a week, on March 25, the walkers expect to reach the Parliament Buildings. How they will be received by the Harper government, which has tried to ignore or delegitimize the Idle No More Movement while shaving away at longstanding health, education, and development programming for indigenous people, remains to be seen.
But whether they get the attention from the media or officialdom is one thing, what needs to be understood is that two things will arrive together in Ottawa that day. One will be a group of indigenous teens on a quest for themselves and the other is an idea of justice and autonomy that I believe can no longer be repressed.
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