By Matthew Pearson, OTTAWA CITIZEN
OTTAWA — Every step David Kawapit took on Sunday brought him closer to Parliament Hill, the final stop on an extraordinary journey that has galvanized aboriginal youth and captured the broader public’s attention.
The 18-year-old and six others, including a guide, are the Nishiyuu Walkers.
They left Whapmagoostui, their small Quebec community on the coast of Hudson Bay, in the middle of January, travelling by foot along traditional Cree and Algonquin trading routes to bring a message of unity to other First Nations and Canadians alike.
They want the world to know the Cree people are the true keepers of their language, culture, traditions, and that the Cree Nation continues to respect the sacred laws of its ancestors.
With more than 1,500 kilometres now behind them — and their ranks swollen to more than 200 people, the journey ends Monday with a final 18.3-km trek from Chelsea to the nation’s capital.
On-to-Ottawa, version 2.0.
The walkers begin each day as one group, but eventually thin out. Some walk in small clusters or in couples, hand in hand, while others clutch walking sticks and march alone.
The sound of their footsteps on the cracked, rutted pavement is like a steady drum beat.
Asked if a reporter could tag along with him, Kawapit replied with a grin, “If you can keep up.”
His voice is soft, but assured and his easygoing nature is evident, high-fiving fellow walkers as he passes them by and calling all of them by name.
“I’m really happy there are a lot of people walking with us.”
He has worn the same pair of black Nike runners, size 10 ½, since Chisasibi, another small Cree village about 1,300 kilometres north of here, where nine additional walkers joined the march.
The fluorescent green laces make him stand out in the crowd. No hat, gloves or coat, he wears a black hoodie with the words “Ride Free” across the chest and a bottle of water safely stowed in the kangaroo pouch.
As his destination draws nearer, Kawapit says he’s filled with a mix of excitement, happiness and sadness.
“I’m going to miss all these guys,” he says of the half-dozen walkers with whom began the journey and the hundreds more who’ve joined since.
“The memories we shared — I won’t forget them.”
Everyone walks for a different reason, he says. He’s walking for the “future generations” in hopes of protecting their lands and ensuring that they will be able to learn the traditional ways of hunting and trapping.
Kawapit’s parents, whom he hasn’t seen since he left on Jan. 16, will be waiting for him in Ottawa.
It will be an emotional reunion, he says, unable to find the words to properly capture just how proud of him they will be.
The walkers are never alone.
In addition to a police escort and a number of other support vehicles, strangers also go out of their way to make them feel welcome.
Drivers slow down and honk their horns as they pass; homeowners come out to the end of their driveways to clap and cheer.
One family circulated through a rest stop Sunday outside Chelsea with giant bowls of sliced apples.
“This is such an important message,” said Kim Ford, who was standing along Highway 105 with her husband, Bill Hipwell, and their two children, Leon and Kaya.
The walkers have shown incredible courage and determination, Hipwell said, adding he thinks it’s time for the federal government to engage in meaningful dialogue with Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples.
“I hope our government can show as much courage as they are showing.”