Marching for justice
Leo Baskatawang wants to unshackle from Canada the ball and chain that is the Indian Act — and, he’s doing it one step at a time as he marches to Ottawa.
When January’s meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, didn’t result in changes to the legislation, Baskatawang knew he had to get moving.
The University of Manitoba student decided to walk from Vancouver to Ottawa in an effort to raise awareness about aboriginal issues. He is looking to gather 100,000 signatures on a petition and will hold a rally in Ottawa when he arrives.
“It’s a steep goal, but I think it’s one that’s obtainable if we all work together, and that’s what this is about — raising awareness and people coming together on a united front,” Baskatawang said.
The petition aims for an aboriginal person elected by aboriginal people to serve as minister of aboriginal affairs. In addition, it calls for re-valuation and replacement of the Indian Act, which Baskatawang argued is an archaic and contradictory piece of legislation, one he likened to a ball and chain, holding back natives rather than protecting and respecting their rights.
To illustrate this, Baskatawang has chained a copy of the Indian Act to his body and will drag it along the 4,000-plus-kilometre trek.
Baskatawang had collected 930 signatures as of Tuesday, May 1, when he was in Merritt. He was expected to arrive in Kamloops last night (May 2).
Baskatawang is making the journey with his friend, Ashley Bottle, who Baskatawang referred to as his spiritual guide. The pair has a vehicle and take turns marching. One drives up a portion of the highway and wait for the other to complete his walk. They then stop to rest and eat before completing another section of the trip, with the goal being to cover up to 40 kilometres per day.
When they enter communities along the way, Baskatawang and Bottle encourage people to join them on their journey.
On the Hope to Merritt segment of the Walk 4 Justice, the two stopped to camp just off the Coquihalla Highway, something Baskatawang anticipates they will have to do many times on the way to the nation’s capital.
“It was cold that first night but, obviously, we’ve got summer coming up, so things are going to improve,” Baskatawang said.
“The first couple days were hard because it was raining, but the weather’s cleared up here over the last few days, so I just hope we have favorable weather as we keep going forward,”
To help fund the trip, the pair is selling March 4 Justice T-shirts. They’ve had people buy the shirts along the way, but most of the sales have come from family and friends, with the Shibogama First Nations Council purchasing 50 shirts.
Baskatawang and Bottle plan to be in Ottawa on Labour Day, when a rally to celebrate native culture will be held.
Baskatawang is from Lac Des Mille Lacs First Nation near Thunder Bay and is a graduate student at the University of Manitoba, working on his master’s degree in native studies. His thesis will be based on his experience on the march.
“This is my attempt to reach out to the community, get their feedback on how they feel about the federal policy and legislation that’s in place and what needs to be changed about it and, again, trying to rally support and collect signatures on the petition,” Baskatawang said.
He said there needs to be a good working relationship between natives and Ottawa if the Indian Act is to be updated and improved.
In nothing else, Baskatawang wants the march to result in an aboriginal identity defined by aboriginals.
“For me, the priority is for indigenous people to define their own identity because, right now, it’s being dictated to them by the government on their terms — and I think that is fundamentally flawed.”
The petition can be found online at gopetition.com. Search “March 4 Justice”. The Facebook page can be found online at facebook.com/March.4.Justice.