“It’s exhausting and your legs burn,” said Tony Blackned, founder and leader of the Wahstauskun Winter Journey of Hope. “But words can’t describe the feeling of being out there, knowing that your ancestors have walked this same path.”
Blackned and his fellow walkers have braved frigid temperatures while snowshoeing from one Eeyou Istchee community to another in order to raise awareness and establish a support system for those battling cancer in the James Bay. And while cancer is an issue that has effected nearly every family in some way, for Blackned, it’s a cause that hits even closer to home.
“My cousin passed away from stomach cancer, and I promised him I would do this journey for him,” Blackned said while choking back tears. “But I recently got medevac’d to Montreal in October and right now I’m awaiting test results. My doctor told me it might be cancer around my stomach and a tumor behind my left eye. That’s when I decided to step up and get the word out about this journey.”
The walk began February 7 in Kuujjuaraapik, Nunavik, and will end in Ottawa – an estimated 1300-kilometre trek.
“We started with 11 of us,” said Blackned. “Right now we have 26. We’ve added walkers from each of the Cree Communities we’ve reached.”
Every walker on the journey walks for a family member who’s been lost to or survived cancer. “There was a boy who got hired for a job in Mistassini, but his first priority was to join this journey,” Blackned told The Nation. “Two of his uncles were just diagnosed with cancer.”
Currently, the group has been traveling 25 to 50 km per day depending on weather conditions. But for all the walkers, the journey is about more than just distance.
“There’s a lot of healing to be had out on the land. We’ve been having sharing circles around the fire at night to get to know everyone better,” said Blackned. “But people are opening up about a lot with the group, and talking about things they’ve never shared with anyone before.”
The snowshoeing has been taking place during weekdays, with the aim of reaching a new Cree community every weekend. Once there, Blackned speaks to the community and media. But his main goal is to ensure his walkers have a warm place to rest.
“Every community has shown us so much support when we arrived,” said Blackned. “I have to speak every time we reach a new community, but first I try to make sure my fellow walkers have as quiet a place as possible to get their rest.”
Cancer survivors in each Cree community are also mobilizing. In several of the communities, survivors have coordinated the group to ensure the next community is ready for them, and every walker has a place to stay.
The funds raised from the walk go to David’s Journey, a cancer awareness program that operates in the nine Cree communities.
“In every community, small businesses and youth councils and band councils have donated to our walk,” Blackned said. “It’s a great feeling when you’re out there knowing that we’ve moved fast and that everyone is in good health. A lot of the walkers who joined have told me, ‘We’re gonna go all the way with you.’”