Oskapewis: Helpers support the walkers
A journey 1,700 kilometres in length and featuring over 20 walkers would not be successful without on-site support of helpers.
So when they saw that the Omushkegowuk walkers needed that support, Patrick Etherington Sr. and Frances Whiskeychan offered their help.
The pair are experienced with walks, whether they walked themselves or served as a helper. Last summer, they supported youth who walked from Cochrane to Alberta.
They also were in Ottawa for 40 days during Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike last winter.
For the Reclaiming Our Steps: Past, Present and Future walk, Etherington began to help when the walkers were near Fraserdale, located north of Smooth Rock Falls, Ont.
“As a helper in this walk, they wanted me to look after the walkers when they were walking,” Etherington said, noting he would drive a van or truck and follow the walkers. “For if they needed to take a break, things to drink, or sandwiches or snacks.”
Etherington, who was born in Fort Albany, said he strongly believed in the message the walkers were bringing to Ottawa, in terms of honouring the treaties.
“It had to do with the treaty and what they were describing what the treaty that we were involved with, Treaty 9,” he said. The fact it was his own people bringing the message to Ottawa “made it more special.”
Brian Okimaw, who started the walk in Attawapiskat, was very appreciative of Etherington’s support.
“(Etherington)’s prayers were helping us. He would light up a sweetgrass and he was a good helper,” He said. “Also, taking our luggage, looking after us. Bringing supper and hot drinks for us. He was very valuable for us and we’re very thankful.”
Whiskeychan joined when the walkers arrived in Cochrane, where she and Etherington reside.
“Frances would be our nurse and look after our feet,” Okimaw said. “If anybody got sick, Frances would be there.”
“Blisters were the main thing. The heavier ones, they had blisters ‘til the end here,” said Whiskeychan, who is a member of Waskaganish First Nation but who was born in Moosonee. “I’m not a certified nurse. I could only bandage their feet and their knees, put tension (bandage) on. That’s about all I did mostly all the way.”
Whiskeychan would also use traditional medicines if any walkers had a cold.
“Like boiled cedar, just medicines to help them with their colds,” she said. “Whatever I know, I’m not a medicine woman. I just know what herbal medicines to use for certain kinds of colds.”
Whiskeychan would also wake up in the walkers in the morning, or help cook.
“Just whatever they needed me to do I would do it,” she said.
“I wanted to make sure everything was OK, everything was in place so that everything would go smoothly. If it goes wrong, it just slows everything down when it’s time to walk.”
And along with the physical, the helpers also helped with emotional and spiritual side of the journey.
“To add on to my duties, in my daily routine, I also was to talk to people,” Etherington said. “If they wanted to talk, to let out, that kind of thing. I was there too.”
Etherington said he offered a lot of moral support.
“They left their families, they had personal struggles, connected to how they were thinking,” he said.
Whiskeychan also made herself available to listen.
“Anger, a lot of anger come out. And just pulling themselves away form the group. I’d have to round them up and see what’s going on with them,” she said. “They’re missing home, missing their kids, things they went through before the walk were coming up, emotional stuff.”
The helpers morally supported the walkers all the way to Ottawa.
Whiskeychan said the final day of the walk was “very exciting” but she could sense disappointment.
“You would expect more people to be standing up for what they were walking for,” she said. “So that was a little disappoint(ing) when you didn’t see a lot of people who were expected to be there.”
And as the end of the journey neared an end, she could sense the group beginning to separate.
“The group was starting to split up and not be a family,” she said. “And you knew that before that people were going through their feelings and isolating themselves, and not being together as we were all the way.”
Whiskeychan hopes the walkers gain closure after completing the walk.
“They did lots of work and maybe that’s what they feel, that they don’t feel acknowledged enough and they should get that,” she said. “Because they deserve it.”
For Whiskeychan, she was just happy to be a part of it.
“It’s just been an honour and privilege just to do what I did for them as a helper,” she said.
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