Indigenous Success Stories

Youth Programs (66)

Ten years ago, a group of Quebec Cree youths finished an epic trek from Whapmagoostui to Ottawa: the Journey of Nishiyuu

March 25, 2023

CBC News: David Kawapit says he learned so many key life lessons about the importance of hope, kindness and connection on what became known as the Journey of Nishiyuu — or the Journey of the People — ten years ago this winter.  He also developed an abiding love for macaroni and cheese mixed with caribou meat. 

On Jan. 16, 2013, Kawapit — with five other youths and a guide — set out from Whapmagoostui, the most northern of the Cree communities in Quebec. They walked all the way to Parliament Hill, about 1,600 kilometres. “The main goal I had was to inspire hope in the youth and I think we did accomplish that,” said Kawapit.

A youth and an elder stand together in the sunlight.
David Kawapit and elder Matthew Natachequan on Parliament Hill, March 25, 2013. Natachequan was a key adviser for the Journey of Nishiyuu. (Alice Beaudoin)

Kawapit was inspired by former Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence, who at the time was on a hunger strike to focus public attention on First Nations issues. The Idle no More movement in support of Indigenous rights was also sweeping across the country at the time. “I recall being very cold … the temperatures dropping to about -52 on the morning we left … minus the wind chill,” said Kawapit.

“We were all very excited, but we were all very scared and nervous obviously,” he said. “And saying goodbye to our families for who knows how long.”

By March 25, the original group of seven walkers had grown to nearly 300 Indigenous youth from all the Cree communities as well as different Indigenous nations. They were greeted by thousands as they arrived on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. “I wanted to help inspire somebody to make a change in their life or to be able to give them that little extra boost of confidence to try something they were scared of trying,” said Kawapit, who was 17 years old at the time.

A crowd of people converge outside a towering building.
By the time the walkers arrived on Parliament Hill their numbers had grown from seven to close to 300. They were met with thousands of supporters. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

He says his memories of that time alternate between very detailed and crystal clear and not at all sharp. He also remembers the first week of walking as being somewhere close to hell.  “You have got to get used to going at least 30 kilometres minimum per day in like -30 C temperatures. Surprisingly, blizzards weren’t the worst of it. It was the sunny days that were the hardest,” said Kawapit. 

Group photo in front of tent.
A growing group of walkers leave the last Cree community on their route out of Waskaganish. (Submitted by Ricky Angtookaluk)

After the first few days of walking, the group decided to no longer stop for breaks, as stopping just meant getting a chill to the bone, said Kawapit. Instead, they packed dried meat and would snack while walking. 

One of the things the now 27-year-old remembers clearly and very fondly is the group of female cooks who prepared food for the growing group of walkers. The walkers called them ‘moms’, adding macaroni and cheese mixed with all kinds of meat — from bologna to caribou — was a crowd favourite. “One of the communities sent us several caribou while we were on the walk. So we cut that up into little pieces and we mix it in with our Kraft Dinner. It was so good,” said Kawapit.

Hundreds of supporters gather on Parliament Hill, in support of a group of young Indigenous people who travelled 1,600 kms on foot from the James Bay Cree community of Whapmagoostui, Québec on Parliament Hill in Ottawa (Fred Chartrand, The Canadian Press)
Johnny Abraham of Whapmagoostui, Québec sheds tears as he speaks about the 1,600 kilometre trek he and a group of young Indigenous people from the James Bay community undertook (Fred Chartrand, The Canadian Press)
David Kawapit and Isaac Kawapit in the crowd on Parliament Hill (Gloria Harmon)
A group of young Indigenous people who travelled 1,600 kms on foot from the James Bay Cree community of Whapmagoostui, Que. celebrate their arrival on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 25, 2013 (Fred Chartrand, The Canadian Press)

The original walkers were Kawapit, Stanley George Jr, 17, Johnny Abraham, 19, Raymond Kawapit, 20, Geordie Rupert, 21, and the late Travis George, 17. 

There was also a guide, the late Isaac Kawapit, 47, who would become known as the “White Wizard” because of his white hooded jacket. Isaac would die of substance abuse in July of 2013, just a few months after the triumphant arrival of the group on Parliament Hill.

Johnny Abraham, now 29 years old, was a young first-time father when he decided to join the journey. He remembers deciding to join just the night before the original group left Whapmagoostui. He wanted to walk for his own personal reasons and to support Kawapit, his cousin. “The first few days were harsh for us,” said Abraham, adding his baby son was a huge motivator for him on the walk, as were the other Indigenous youth who joined along the way.

When the original seven walkers arrived in the first community of Chisasibi, it became clear to them that what they were doing was inspiring others. About 20, mostly Cree youth, joined the journey in Chisasibi and then a steady stream joined at each community along the route.  “At first, we didn’t really know how much it had blown up on social media,” said Abraham. “When we arrived at the first destination (Chisasibi), we saw the people supporting us from the other communities. It was very touching.

“I met a lot of people who had similar types of struggles that I went through. Then we kind of helped each other … to support each other not to stop.”

Young man holding small boy in a crowd.
Johnny Abraham with his young son Brayson. Abraham was one of the original seven walkers. (Submitted by Johnny Abraham)

More and more youth joined in at every community — Eastmain, Wemindji and then Waskaganish, the last Cree community on the route. In Algonquin territory, Indigenous youth from other nations began to join. 

Kawapit remembers the excitement of seeing the journey grow and evolve, but also the worry. “I remember being super nervous about where everybody’s going to be sleeping and how we’re going to feed everybody,” he said, but thankfully there were donations coming in and many supporters across the Cree nation and elsewhere. 

Smiling man holding plant.
The original seven walkers included a guide, the late Isaac Kawapit. Kawapit died in July of 2013, just a few months after the walkers arrived in Ottawa. (Submitted by Migon Wabanonik)

Matthew Mukash is a Whapmagoostui Cree elder. He’s also a former chief of the community and a former Grand Chief of the Cree Nation. He advised some of the walkers back in 2013 and co-produced a documentary on the walk called The Journey of Nishiyuu, directed by Benjamin Masty. 

The journey has had an important and lasting legacy, particularly in the Cree communities, Mukash said. “A lot of stuff has changed since then. There are more land-based activities for youth … and young adults,” he said. He said most of the Cree communities now have yearly winter journeys that have become an important chance for healing and cultural connection.

“That was the purpose, for people not to forget their connection to the earth, because our culture is land-based. Indigenous culture is land-based and for the youth also to be given the opportunity to continue the ancestor way of life,” Mukash said. 

He also believes the journey contributed, along with movements like Idle no More, to creating a wider understanding in Canada of Indigenous history, trauma and culture.

A throng of people in summer.
By the time the group arrived, hundreds of supporters had gathered at Parliament Hill. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

The day the Journey of Nishiyuu walkers arrived on Parliament Hill, on March 25, 2013, is one of the days David Kawapit remembers as though it was yesterday. He remembers being both sad and relieved that they were arriving at their destination.

And he remains grateful for the important lessons learned on the journey, still very active in him. “I had to come out of my introverted shell during the walk. I had to talk to so many people. Because of the walk, it helped me be able to voice my opinions on certain things and to be able to make new friends,” said Kawapit, who now works at the local co-op in Whapmagoostui. 

Two smiling people hug.
David Kawapit poses for a photo in Ottawa. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Kawapit wants the legacy of the Journey of Nishiyuu to remind people about the importance of kindness.  “I truly hope that people are just generally kind to each other,” said Kawapit. “Because that was the atmosphere that happened on the journey. Yes, there were ups and downs, but in the centre of it all, it worked because everybody helped each other.” 

A line of people on snowshoes stand in rising darkness as the sun dips below the horizon.
The Journey of Nishiyuu walkers just before sunset on Jan. 23, 2013. (Submitted by Matthew Mukash)
About the Authors

Susan Bell: Susan Bell has worked with CBC News since 1997 as a journalist, writer-broadcaster, radio host and producer. She has been with CBC North since 2009, most recently as a digital producer with the Cree unit in Montreal.

Marjorie Kitty: Marjorie Kitty is Eeyou from the Cree Nation of Chisasibi and is currently working as the host of Eyou Dipajimoon with the CBC North Cree unit in Montreal.