First Nations walkers demand change to Indian Act through 500-km trek

A near month-long trek has seen First Nations people from across Canada descend upon Ottawa to seek justice and change to the Indian Act.

Deaths of students in residential schools powered many to walk from Sudbury, Ont., to Ottawa

Keith Black, a member of the Chipewyan Prairie First Nation, completed the near 500-kilometre walk from Sudbury to Ottawa. (Francis Ferland/CBC News)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

A near month-long trek has seen First Nations people from across Canada descend upon Ottawa to seek justice and change to the Indian Act.

The Blinding Light Walk - Tiger Lily movement started in Sudbury, Ont., led by the Chipewyan Prairie First Nation near Fort McMurray, Alta. Walkers like Keith Black completed the near 500-kilometre feat knowing it was less about the distance travelled, and more about a movement centred around change.

"When I first got here, I dropped to my knees right in front of the fire. That's the first time I've ever cried for years. It was tears of hurt," said Black, who is a member of the Chipewyan Prairie First Nation.

On Parliament Hill, a single teepee has been set up for walkers to decompress just a few dozen feet away from the hundreds of shoes commemorating Indigenous children who died in residential schools.

Most people wore orange shirts bearing the phrase "Every Child Matters" to signify the deaths of children in residential schools.

The idea for a long haul walk came following a 140-kilometre walk on Canada Day by members of the same First Nation. At that time, the walk was specifically undertaken to honour lives that had been lost in the residential school system.

Near the end of that walk, Chief Vern Janvier said he had a specific goal for this longer walk to better understand and focus on the pain of families who lost loved ones to residential schools. 

"This is for every child that has never made it home," said Trent Bouchier, the youngest walker. 

Trent Bouchier, 21, was the youngest walker to participate in the Blinding Light - Tiger Lily Walk. (Francis Ferland/CBC News)

Bouchier, 21, said he could "feel the pain of other children" for each step he took, and it was a time for him to embrace what his people had gone through and learn from the elders.

Other walkers knew this would be more than a physical challenge, and mentally and emotionally they would think of all First Nations in mourning. 

"We were hoping [for] challenges ... We wanted to experience and feel some of the pain that the families did," said Candace Black, a member of the Kapawe'no First Nation, who now lives in Chipewyan.

"We wanted to own some of that pain and take the pain away."

Problems with the Indian Act

The Indian Act, created in 1876, controls who qualifies for Indian status, governs First Nation governments, and outlines the responsibility of the Canadian government toward First Nations people. 

Keith Black has two children who do not qualify for treaty rights because their mother is white, and that rule needs to change.

"My grandkids' [rights] are something we shouldn't have to fight," he said, adding he'd like to see First Nations have full autonomy over their treaty lands.

Candace Black said the Indian Act needs to be revised for reconciliation to be achieved. (Francis Ferland/CBC News)

Candace Black said it's impossible to achieve the goals of reconciliation until the Indian Act is rectified and altered to how First Nations want. 

"We are forgiving people, so we forgive about what happened and we're ready to heal, but we're not going to be ready to heal unless the Indian Act does change," she said.

Organizers of the movement are set to meet with Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller on Sunday morning.