05/08/2015 02:31 EDT | Updated 05/08/2016 05:59 EDT

Cree woman walks coast to coast to spark talk on lateral violence

A Victoria woman is literally taking steps to raise awareness about lateral violence among First Nations, non-status and Métis peoples.

This week Isabel Okanese began a cross-country walk at Mile Zero in Victoria, B.C., and will end it more than 6,000 kilometres away in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The walk started on May 5 and is expected to end in October.

The walk is called Miyo-wicehtowin which is Cree for "living in harmony together". The intent is to spark discussion about lateral violence within First Nations communities.

"Lateral violence is a very big problem. It covers a lot of areas and stems from colonization," said Okanese, who is Oji-Cree, from central Alberta.

Lateral violence can be defined as verbal abuse, mental abuse, emotional abuse, spiritual abuse and even physical abuse, she added.

"Lateral violence is what we do to each other."

Okanese, 43, is no stranger to lateral violence.

Her family was among many aboriginal people who were disenfranchised, or stripped of Indian status, and hence categorized as non-status First Nations people.

Stripping the status designation had a socially chilling effect on the family. Okanese grew up hearing that she didn't look, sound or act native.

"I've been ostracised, lots of gossiping and backstabbing," she said. "I've been treated as if I'm not even Oji-Cree."

Okanese practices what she preaches about lateral violence.

"I have to catch myself when I find myself thinking or saying something unkind about other aboriginal people," she said. "This isn't easy, to try to be kind to someone who has been unkind."

Okanese is travelling along Highway 1 across eight provinces. She has a small support group and will be sleeping in a motor home.

She plans to stop at First Nations communities along the way to address lateral violence.

​Okanese hopes to encourage aboriginal people to treat each other with respect whether they are Métis, non-status Indian or First Nations.

"We need to come back together as one family," she said.

"If we end the internalized racism and stop fighting amongst ourselves then we can look after the issues that are really important."

The journey started with a sunrise ceremony at Mile Zero in Victoria. Okanese also plans to smudge every morning before walking.

She's carrying a vial of water from Mile Zero which she intends to pour into the ocean at Nova Scotia as a symbol of unity.

Okanese encourages aboriginal people to walk with her along the way.