NEWS

Reporter's Notebook: Waubgeshig Rice on the Omushkegowuk Walkers

12/24/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 02/22/2015 05:59 EST
The story that resonated with me the most this year was meeting up with the Omushkegowuk Walkers as they arrived in Ottawa at the end of February.

They left their community of Attawapiskat in northern Ontario on Jan. 4 to begin an epic 1,700-kilometre walk to raise awareness of treaty rights. Over the course of their journey, the group grew to 18, and as they made the final push to Parliament Hill, they were exhausted, relieved, and proud.

I was working a rare Sunday shift, and we in the newsroom knew they were to arrive that day. We weren't sure exactly when; we only had a rough idea. So I packed my camera gear into my van and drove west on Carling Avenue, their planned route to the heart of Ottawa.

It was late in the afternoon and there was only about an hour of daylight left, so the window for capturing their arrival in full colour was closing. Thankfully, it was a relatively mild mid-winter day, and I was excited to head out and find them.

After driving for about half an hour from downtown, I saw a group in the distance wearing bright orange vests walking in my direction. As I got closer, I saw them carrying staffs and flags.

So I pulled over, set up my tripod and camera, and began to shoot. As they came closer, I introduced myself and they smiled and nodded, while continuing forth in silence. Their strong resolve to finish this walk was apparent. 

Finding awareness

It was a response to one of those tweets that really drove it home for me: Tim Fontaine wrote simply, "Imagine walking 1,700 km in the middle of winter because you believe in something."

I took down my camera, put it back in the van and drove past them to set up in another position to get more shots of them approaching. I did this a few more times as they entered the more densely populated neighbourhoods of west Ottawa.

Just thinking about how far they had come and the brutal winter conditions they endured in the recent weeks was mind-blowing. I was impressed and admired them greatly. I took pictures and and posted them to Twitter in between getting shots.

This was my first time doing their story. I had been following along on social media. Although their route took them through some of the harshest terrain in cruel winter conditions, well out of the range of any mobile network, their supporters periodically documented their progress on Facebook and Twitter.

They crossed frozen, barren landscapes and weathered terrible blizzards on remote highways. I had come to learn the difficult details of their trek, and observe their commitment to send a message.

Nearly two months after they begun, it was wonderful to capture the near-finale in high definition. 

Final leg of the journey

Now in Ottawa, the walkers trudged along the sidewalk, past apartment buildings, fast food restaurants and auto shops. They decided to take a break in the parking lot of a plaza on Carling. That's where I interviewed a few of them.

They were tired, but the emotion in their voices was powerful. It was clearly hard for them to fathom that this epic journey was nearly over.

They had mixed feelings about accomplishing such a massive feat. They were happy it was over, but they would miss each other and the bond they had created. Still, they did what they set out to do, which was get the country talking about treaty rights and how important it is to uphold them.

Once the interviews were done, I tore down my gear, packed it in the van, and drove back downtown to write and edit the story for that evening's newscast. My mind raced as I headed east to CBC Ottawa. I wondered if I would have the mental and physical toughness to undertake such a pilgrimage. It soon became clear to me that there was much more to it than that.

The spirit of understanding and respect that fuelled these men and women transcended the abilities of the body and the mind to accomplish it. But my role was to try to do their story justice. I was happy to see CBC cover their journey along the way, and I was honoured to be part of that narrative.

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