Nishiyuu Walkers part of “transformative change”

To hear Tobias Commanda Odjick tell it, Monday was one of the most important days of his life.

It was the day the 13-year-old from Kitigan Zibi First Nation will remember greeting his 16-year-old brother, Bure, as he arrived in Ottawa in the 300-strong group known as Nishiyuu Walkers.

“I came here because my brother has walked all the way to here. I’m pretty proud of him. I’m proud of all the walkers,” said Odjick, who lives about 130 kilometres north of Ottawa.

“It shows unity and it’s about all of us coming together.”

The walk began when David Kawapit Jr., a 17-year-old from the isolated community of Whapmagoostui in northern Quebec, decided to trudge 1,600 kilometres from the edge of Hudson Bay to Ottawa in support of better conditions for aboriginal people.

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The walk was inspired by last winter’s Idle No More movement, which sparked protests across the country after last year’s omnibus budget bill C-45 and on everything from the environment to missing and murdered aboriginal women.

For many, the walk symbolized a continuing of the movement and a sign that First Nations people are not going to back down.

“This isn’t a blip in history, this is the beginning of a transformative change,” said NDP MP Charlie Angus.

“There’s a fundamental seismic shift that’s happening right across First Nations communities. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Earlier in the day, newly-appointed Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said he had invited some of the young people who started the walk to meet with him.

“This is about my wanting to hear from them,” said Valcourt. “These people have concerns, they should expect no less than the right to sit down with me.”

Valcourt pointed to government measures such as the land management regime, which allows First Nations to opt out of some of the land-related sections of the Indian Act, as steps towards First Nations gaining self-sufficiency.

But Angus said such measures are a ruse, especially in the context of the budget’s First Nations Job Fund, a $241-million training fund for young aboriginals that many are calling a “workfare” program because it ties income assistance to mandatory job training.

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“I’m pleased to see the minister’s willing to meet,” said Angus.

“I think the fact that we have Stephen Harper playing with the pandas while history’s being made here, is a sign of the indifference of this government. Out of this budget there’s nothing that addresses any of the most basic needs of First Nations communities.”

For others, the walk wasn’t about legislation or budgets.

It was simply a way to connect with the land – no strings attached.

Tyanne Ratt, 16, walked four hours from Rapid Lake in Quebec to participate in the rally on Parliament Hill Monday.

“I did it for my community, I did it for my people and all humanity,” she said.

“And to protect our Mother Earth.”

–  With a file from The Canadian Press