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Group raising awareness as they walk across Canada


With seven months on the road behind them and another 12 months stretching out ahead, a group of young walkers travelling across the country to draw awareness to the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women remains as steadfast in their cause as the day they started.
“One of our main aims is to raise awareness of the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women, but also to show solidarity with affected family members and also other First Nation communities from across Canada,” said walk organizer E Naad Maa Get.
“And then we have a more cultural and spiritual aim towards this of one, not only the healing process, but two, encouraging males of our community to return to our traditional ways.”
Maa Get said encouragement does not necessarily encompass spirituality, but rather cultural values such as protection for the community.
“Protecting others, women and children, being places of safety rather than concern,” he said.
“So to foster that belief once again is definitely one of our goals.”
The group, which also includes Jasmine Matwayashing, Creedence McComb, Jacqueline Hines and Tianna Fillo (Niibin), began the journey Dec. 21, 2017 at the small northern Ontario Ojibway First Nation community of Neyashiinimiing, 2-1/2 hours north of Toronto on the Bruce Peninsula.
The plan is to walk through every province and territory which has road access.
“So just Labrador and Nunavut are the only places we won’t be physically going to,” Maa Get said.
The original route included just over 17,300 kilometres of walking, although the course has been adjusted a number of times in the past seven months.
“Like, initially we were not going to be coming through this area, but because of a suggestion from one of our Elders, we came through this way,” Maa Get said.
“That is another thing, if our Elders tell us to do something, we do it.”
He added Elders warned the group the focus of their cause may change as the walk progressed.
“We do feel that along this journey we are going to meet different people with different pieces of the puzzle. And sometimes those pieces have nothing to do with the issue,” Maa Get said, citing the instance of a Garden River couple who let the group camp in their driveway for a few days, while making repairs to their Winnebago.
The husband worked in indigenous child welfare and the conversation soon turned to the importance of keeping aboriginal children in aboriginal communities.
“Not only for that cultural reasoning, but there is a certain shock. It is a cultural shock when you go into a foreign house with different ways and it is not the most conducive environment,” Maa Get said.
“What we were able to work out was the fact that there is a large population of elderly natives. They need someone in their lives. So for these children that are being taken from their environment, for whatever reason, there is this overlooked opportunity of capable native elders. One, not only is it someone within the community, but two, they can show them the culture, they can show them the things that they know. And so they are now sort of working on that.
“So we just do the best to accommodate and be as flexible as possible.”
The group walks in shifts, relay style and progress is determined by a number of factors, such as weather or, most often, RV breakdowns.
“We lost about three months to RV issues. Since it is an ‘81 Winnebago, parts are not just flowing in,” Maa Get said.
“So we are just kind of Frankensteining this thing and keeping it on the road as we go.”
Each day they walk for a different missing or murdered woman. The day of their stop in Dauphin, the group was walking for Belinda Cameron, 42, who went missing in 2005 in Victoria, B.C.
The group keeps followers informed of their experiences through Facebook, Twitter and connections with media along the way, but it is the one-on-one connections that keeps the group feeling they are making a difference.
While Maa Get says they are not naive enough to think they are going to solve the issue simply by walking, the small conversations are making a difference.
“People see the RV, they see us on the road. So individuals who don’t necessarily have a first-hand account, or anything like that, or knowledge, they just see it on the news, they will come and have small conversations with us. But it is enough that we can get out what we are walking for,” Maa Get said.
“Being able to have people stop and ask those questions is so important, because it gives us a chance to be able to clarify some of those things that they may have not had clarification on,” Niibin added.
Not all the encounters are positive, however, as the walkers have encountered racism.
In particular, the females in the group have had instances of being frightened.
“Kind of just the look we have being aboriginal girls, especially being in ceremony and wearing skirts and having braided hair. People see us like that and they are just . . . I just feel unsafe when I am around different people. They are all looking at me funny,” Matwayashing said.
But, Niibin added, the trick is to concentrate on the positives.
“For every one bad comment we get there are so many more positives. People honking their horn and stopping with water,” she said.
“They ask some important questions; why do you think it is happening and what can we do as Canadians to help? It is just being understanding and being open to listening to our stories. Not being dismissive.”
The group hopes to have many more of those positive encounters as they head west from Dauphin through northern Saskatchewan and Alberta into the Northwest Territories and Yukon, before heading south to Prince Rupert. From Prince Rupert the walkers will head south along the Highway of Tears and turn back to the east, travelling through border towns on their way to St. John’s.
Specifically, the groups hopes to add to the genuine connections they have made with children along the way.
“That’s who we walk for. We walk for the generations to come. We want to bring about that awareness to show them that it is okay to stand up and it is okay to say those hard things and start those hard conversations,” Niibin said.
“Because that is where the healing begins.”