A group of Aboriginal advocates and youth were armed with running shoes and a goal as they began their walk across Canada to raise money, awareness and cultural understanding.
On May 5, a team of nearly a dozen committed individuals began their healing journey which will take them more than eight months, through seven provinces and countless communities, and 7,000 kilometres from Miawpukek First Nation in Newfoundland to Campbell River, B.C.
The Walk for Nations is a cross-Canada endeavour meant to raise funds for the 7 Generations Urban Youth Safe House Healing Program “Awasis Nekan Ote, which is based in Ontario.” In the Cree language it means “Here, The Children Come First”. The program is culturally-driven and meant to provide youth with a greater awareness of traditional teachings, and the space is meant to be a venue for rites of passage.
The walk was the brainchild of Michael Gladue, founder and Chairman of 7 Generation Healing Network [7GEN], and Ervin Chartrand, a Métis ex-gang member turned filmmaker.
7GEN is an Ontario-based registered non-profit charity made up of Indigenous men and women who have put their energies, talents, experience and leadership into helping support and provide opportunities to Aboriginal youth across the Canada.
Of the eight participants hitting the pavement, half are youth who are being home-schooled throughout the journey.
“It was agreed that if they attended the walk and kept up with homework [online] that they would [each] graduate from their grade this year,” Gladue explained.
Youth attending the walk are Gladue’s niece and nephew Asia Bui, 15, and Leland McIntyre, 18, and brothers Kenny, 18, and Donovan Kawtiashm, 20.
Gladue said the march is educational, political and spiritual, and they hope to bring awareness to issues regarding trauma, loss and injustice.
“We want to let the world know about the missing and murdered women,” he said, referring to the countless murders and violent abuses inflicted on Aboriginal women happening for decades throughout the country.
But while they walk for many reasons, organizers said their main goal is for the young people.
“We are doing this to raise awareness and funds for the Aboriginal Youth Healing Program,” Gladue said. “[And] to help youth deal with the anger, resentment and trauma they feel from the residual effects of residential schools.”
Chartrand knows a thing or two about anger and how it leads to a life of crime.
“Growing up in a shit home with a single parent...my life hasn’t been great,” said Chartrand. “I grew up a troubled youth in and out of gangs,” he admitted.
But Chartrand eventually “dropped his colors” and left the gang in 2000, after being incarcerated for a few years after being a part of a large gang-bust in Manitoba in 1998. He said cultural spirituality and being involved in traditional healing practices, such as sweatlodges, while incarcerated helped him to turn his life around.
“It saved me from myself,” he said.
Once out of prison, Chartrand went back to school for broadcast and is now a successful filmmaker. He has won several accolades, including an award for best new talent at the 2005 Winnipeg Film Festival.
Chartrand said he is participating in the Walk for Nations because he knows Aboriginal youth can achieve success if they want it bad enough.
“It’s giving hope back to our youth in ceremonial ways,” he said of both the walk and youth healing program.
“We have to protect our youth today. They are our future,” he continued. “If we don’t [protect them] more kids are going to join gangs and go to prison,” he predicted.
“A lot of youth think there is no light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “I’m a working example that you can make it and you can succeed in life.”
Gladue said there is no set goal amount of funds they are trying to raise, but believes every bit helps. They are accepting any donations along their journey, for the healing project and to help them with travel costs.
He said the group has had support from various donors.
The First Nations Workforce Development career training agency in Fort St. John has donated the RV that the group is using for lodging and transportation, and the Toronto School District has donated laptops for the youth to use for home-schooling, just to name a couple of the supporters.
“People have been very generous, stopping on the side of the road,” said Chartrand. “There’s a lot of support out here.”
The group welcomes donations, well-wishes and encourages people to march with them in solidarity.
“Hopefully, by the time we reach British Columbia we will have hundreds of people walking with us,” said Chartrand.
But while the group walks for youth, for one organizer the journey has taken on a more personal importance.
“As an absentee father and an alcoholic and drug addict all my life, I am doing this for my children,” said Gladue. “This is my way of saying sorry.”
For more information, to donate, or to follow the journey, visit the Walk for Nations Facebook page. Or visit their website at: walkfornations.wordpress.com.