04/17/2014 11:53 EDT | Updated 06/17/2014 05:59 EDT

Quebec Cree walkers find lasting impact in trek to Ottawa

Last winter, six youth and one guide from a small Cree community in northern Quebec embarked on a 1,600-kilometre journey they hoped would change their lives.

They left their home of Whapmagoostui, Que. on Hudson's Bay, with snowshoes in temperatures reaching minus 50 and set out to the nation’s capital.

Nine weeks later "The Journey of Nishiyuu" — which means "The Journey of the People" in Cree — reached Ottawa on March 25, 2013 but when they arrived, their group was several hundred strong.

They hoped the walk would bring attention to aboriginal youth and issues. By the time the group arrived in Ottawa they had received national media attention. The people in Whapmagoostui, population 900, feel it put them "on the map". But many wondered if it would have lasting impacts on the community.

David Kawapit was the young Cree man who instigated the monumental journey. David was inspired by the Idle No More movement.  And he wanted to heal. He was struggling with depression at the time.

A year after the walk he said he has personally seen change.

“Of course one doesn’t deal with depression instantly like that. It takes time to get over things," said David. Every now and then I guess I experience certain days of my life when I just kind of want to punch everybody in the face.  But I battled it out. ... all in all the depression [is better].”

Melissa Natchequan, a former CBC reporter who covered the walk and now lives in the community, wishes there had been more support for the walkers when they got home.

“Yeah, we had a feast, yeah we congratulated them, good job, but all the problems they were trying to resolve in their lives, maybe they weren’t completely done with them," said Natchequan. "So I think that is what was lacking, to bring them back to reality, but they just kind of went “boom” to the bottom.”

Since his return, David has started travelling to communities to talk about his experience, and often offers counselling to people. He said the walk has opened up doors for him and he feels lucky he’s able to do this.

But while David has become a role model in the Cree community, he also lost an important role model last summer.  

Isaac Kawapit — David Kawapit's uncle and the guide who travelled with the walkers every step of the way — died in July, of substance abuse. It devastated people in Whapmagoostui-- and everyone else involved with the journey.

"It was a hard experience because people knew I was close to Isaac he was basically like a father to me too," said David. "And when I heard he had died it was an incredibly sad moment for me."

Isaac Kawapit had a tough life. He lost a child and then separated from his wife. He also struggled with addiction — with sniffing gas and substances — for years. Natchequan​​ knew of his troubles and says she was surprised when he joined the walkers.

I was kind of worried for him because, you know, people can get sick with withdrawals and all that,”  Natchequan said. “You could tell from beginning of the journey to the end of the journey Isaac had really aged.  It took a toll on him.  He sacrificed himself for that and that was his purpose and his job was done and that’s’ why he went home.”

While losing Isaac was a big blow, the walk has had positive impacts on the community.

Now Matthew Mukash, David's great uncle, and a former Grand Council Chief is working on building the Nishiyuu way of life into the health board. He says people still talk about the journey.        

"It really has inspired the community." said Mukash. "Even today the elders are talking about it. I work on a file for the Cree Health Board. We are developing a traditional health model based on the kind of medicines and the ways, the healing methods and practices of our ancestors … the elders say all the aspects of our culture is the best medicine. You go out there in the winter time, you breath the fresh air, you exercise all day and the food that you eat is very very clean"

And even as David struggles with depression, he is stronger.

“I have my moments but all in all people have their limits of course but as long as I have friends," David said. "As long as I have my people beside me I know I can probably surpass it.”

"If something big does comes up I’m not going to sit by and watch, I’ll try to do something about it. I guess people look at me and think that I can stand...strong, basically against anything."