Omushkegowuk walkers reach Parliament Hill
Danny Metatawabin reads a statement on the steps of Parliament Hill as he is flanked by Paul Mattinas (left) and Brian Okimaw. The Reclaiming Our Steps: Past, Present and Future walkers reached Ottawa on Feb. 24 after walking 1,700 kilometres from Attawapiskat. Although the walk did not result in a discussion with the government as Metatawabin had hoped, the walkers said the journey was one of spirituality and healing.
After walking 1,700 kilometres over 49 days, the Omushkegowuk walkers completed their journey of walking from Attawapiskat to Ottawa.
Three men from Attawapiskat started the journey in early January and were joined along the way by 20 men, women and youth before they reached Parliament Hill on Feb. 24.
The walk was started by Danny Metatawabin, a member of Fort Albany, who wanted to start a discussion with both levels of government and First Nations leaders about implementing the treaty and addressing the issues plaguing First Nations communities.
“Those who know me know I’ve always advocated for First Nations issues so we can have our place in Canada,” Metatawabin said. “To making an understanding of treaty making process and that relationship between First Nations people and the government.”
Metatawabin was Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s spokesperson during her hunger strike last winter. It ended when First Nations chiefs and federal opposition leaders signed a 13-point declaration of commitment to press the government on implementing the treaty “as we agreed to.”
Metatwabin said he was humbled by experience during the hunger strike but he was unsatisfied with the lack of progress on the commitment signed. “There were supposed to be follow up meetings to talk about treaty process and implementation but nothing ever came to be,” he said. “I wanted to go back to Ottawa to make a statement.”
Metatawabin was inspired by the Journey of Nishiyuu, where six Cree youth and their guide walked from their community in northern Quebec to Ottawa last winter.
He decided to do his own walk and sought others to join him. He approached Brian Okimaw of Attawapiskat about being part of the journey.
“I walk for those treaties that were signed a hundred years and today both government failed to implement to treaties today,” Okimaw said.
Since Treaty 9 was signed, First Nations people have only suffered, he said.
“Poor housing conditions, residential school, suicide, our women being killed, mould in housing and people getting sick,” Okimaw said. “You see a lot of people who are not themselves today. Many people do alcohol and drugs. And that’s why I do this walk.”
Paul Mattinas also agreed to be a part of the walk, and the three set out on Jan. 4.
At that time, the James Bay winter road was only complete halfway between Attawapiskat and Kashechewan, so the trio had to walk along a ski-doo trail. The walkers were dropped off by a ski-doo each day. They had to carry backpacks and keep sandwiches in their coats – otherwise they would freeze from the -50 C windchill.
“We had to bundle ourselves up,” Metatawabin said. “We couldn’t really stop to make fire because it was just the three of us walking.”
“We struggled those second and third days,” Okimaw said. “And on third we met the winter road. That road was really smooth and that really helped us. And we started hauling our sled.”
Remi Nakogee, who started as a helper on the journey, joined the walkers by that time.
The four reached Kashechewan and Fort Albany shortly afterwards and reached Moosonee and Moose Factory 10 days after they began.
Walking an average of 30 kilometres a day, it began to take its toll on the walkers, especially Okimaw. He pulled a leg muscle on the second day of the walk and it nagged him all the way to Moose Factory.
“My leg was giving up on me. I could barely walk,” he said. “When we got to Moose Cree, my leg was very swollen. People said I should not be walking.”
At the doctor’s advice, Okimaw rested for four days while the others continued.
“On that fourth day, the swelling went down. The pain went away. And I started walking again.”
Mattinas also had to rest for three days during the journey.
Metatawabin would be the only one to walk every single step to Ottawa, but there was a point where he considered giving up.
“I was sore, deep in pain and thought I couldn’t walk in the morning,” he said. “But then I got the strength and I just started walking.”
All those who walked said it was spiritual journey, and that’s what kept the walkers going.
“We think of our ancestors that came a long time ago,” Okimaw said. “They didn’t have winter road. They used snowshoes. A lot of times they come to us. Their spirits were walking with us. As we end the day, we pray again to thank God for this journey. And we also thank our grandfathers, grandmothers. We give thanks to them.”
The walkers were joined by others along the way. They were joined by others in Fort Albany,
Moose Cree, Cochrane, Wahgoshig, Temagami and North Bay, growing to more than 20 walkers.
They also gained a lot of support.
“Along the way, as we approached traditional territory of other people, they were helping us. Give us food shelter. They would provide everything we need,” Okimaw said.
“Even the Canadian people, non-Native Canadians, they helped us,” Okimaw continued. “We passed through a restaurant one time and they approach us to have coffee and warm up, and that was helpful to us.”
On the second last day, the walkers miscalculated the distance needed to be walked in order to reach their planned starting point for the final march to Parliament Hill. They ended up walking some 45 kilometres that day.
There was a lot of excitement on the morning of Feb. 24, but also some anxieties.
“We were trying to get organized and have a decent breakfast,” Metatawabin said. “We eventually went to our last stop the previous night.”
The walkers were joined by family and friends from back home, and were greeted by local high school students. A ceremony was conducted and the final march began.
Escorted by police cars, the walkers first marched to the Human Rights Monument, where a song and ceremony were conducted. Then they reached Parliament Hill, but not before they stopped and knocked on the doors of the Prime Minister’s Office.
“Sadly, we stop at the Prime Minister’s house hoping he’d open the door and he’d have coffee with us,” Okimaw said. “But sadly, he did not.”
There were also no government officials to meet them at Parliament.
“It was disappointing that the federal representative was not there to greet us, and the national chief was not there,” Metatawabin said.
Where marches featured thousands of people in Idle No More rallies in Ottawa last winter, the Omushkegowuk walkers’ arrival were greeted by more than a hundred people.
Okimaw was disappointed.
“We didn’t see enough people there that I thought we would see,” he said. “It was a sad moment for me, hoping that people would be there.”
However, Okimaw was happy to see friends and relatives that did show up to witness the completion of the journey.
Mattinas was pleased to have completed the walk.
“Feel good when I hear Danny saying when we got here, they were happy to bring that message,” he said. “I guess (we’ll) just to continue to try to heal the people and try to make understanding in how we can help each other.”
Despite his disappointment with the lack of a discussion or meeting, Metatawabin was humbled to complete the journey. He felt that the walk “needed to happen” regardless, and hopes the governments and regional chiefs got the message.
“Now’s the time to step up and say we will look after you,” Metatabin said of the government. “That’s part of the message I wanted to share.”
All three of the original walkers offered thanks to all those who supported and prayed for them on the walk, and for following their journey whether it was on the news or their Facebook page.
Okimaw said a lot of positivity came out of the walk.
“There was a reason why we walked. Many people said we would not accomplish nothing. But it is the spirit that is still with us today - the federal and provincial government will answer to the spirit.”
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