There was a moment where Tony Blackned found himself isolated on the path during the Wahstauskun Journey of Hope.
“I looked ahead and saw the walkers in front were quite a bit ahead, and I looked behind and saw more walkers crossing a big lake at least four kilometres back but I heard footsteps,” said an emotional Blackned. “I was alone but I could feel someone was walking beside me, and all of a sudden I felt this joyfulness come over me, and I started smiling.”
The Journey of Hope came to an abrupt end in Waswanipi April 3. In the end it wasn’t health concerns or uncooperative weather, it was a permit that stopped them. “You can’t just walk on the highway with a big group of people – you need a permit or else you get fined and ticketed,” said Blackned. “Grand Chief Coon Come tried to help with the SQ but we weren’t able to get the permits in time.”
But even though the journey was stopped short its original finish line in Ottawa, Blackned says the walkers still accomplished their goal. At the end of the journey, he had 32 walkers with him, and he had snowshoed well over 1000 km while making stops in all nine Cree communities to raise awareness for cancer support in Cree territory.
“I’m proud of all the walkers and people who supported us and what we accomplished together,” said Blackned. “But this isn’t the end, we’re already planning a canoe trip to raise awareness over the summer.”
In addition to the physical accomplishment and information shared, there was a healing and connection to be had out there on the land. “It was an emotional journey and I found myself out there,” Blackned told The Nation. “When we started, all the walkers were strangers. Now we’re like a big family.”
Nearing the journey’s conclusion, Blackned’s own health started to become a concern. His doctor informed him there’s a chance he may have stomach cancer and a tumour behind his eye. He is currently awaiting test results.
“Right now my eye is bothering me and every now and then I get headaches,” he said, but the journey also helped Blackned’s health. “I wasn’t active before, and doing this journey has given me energy and seeing the support from all the people has given me a real boost. I’m feeling great now.”
According to Jill Torrie, the Cree Board of Health’s Assistant Director of Public Health, Eeyou Istchee has historically had a relatively low rate of cancer cases when compared to the rest of Quebec. However, rates have crept closer to the provincial average in recent years.
“The standard we measure against are cancer rates in the province. Our goal is to be as good or better than the rest of Quebec. And until recently there were very low levels of cancer here. What’s happening now is that they’re coming up to comparable levels with the rest of the province,” Torrie told The Nation.
“With most cancers, if you can detect them early, you can make them go away. So early detection means screening. And that involves going in and getting the tests.”
And while early detection and treatment is paramount in terms of surviving cancer, prevention is better than a cure. “Most cancers are preventable,” said Torrie. “So a nutritious diet, reducing stress levels, exercise, and living a healthy lifestyle without too many excesses are the most important things you can do.”
Ultimately, cancer is an indiscriminate disease for which we all need take appropriate precautions. The Canadian Cancer Society recommends regular colorectal and breast cancer screenings for people over 50. “Even if you lead a healthy life, at a certain age you still need to start getting screened,” said Torrie. “That’s why we have the Clara mobile mammogram bus, that goes around the Cree communities every two years.”
Blackned emphasizes that people shouldn’t neglect their appointments. “Get checked, find out the symptoms and once you feel something in your body, go to the clinic, go to the hospital. It’s never too early to get checked out,” he said.
“It’s hard the first time but this experience has proven to me that there will always be people there to support and stand with you. The people who are battling cancer are not alone.”
For now, it’s time for Blackned to rest and focus on his personal healing journey but in closing he wanted to express his infinite gratitude to the entire Cree Nation. “I’m so grateful to every volunteer, every band council, the road-runners, cooks, everyone,” said Blackned.
“I did this for my cousin George Vincent who passed away from stomach cancer,” he added, choking back tears. “I know he was the one who was out there walking with me.”
Walking for Wellness – the healing power of wilderness
The Journey of Wellness is a holistic healing journey done on the land for people dealing with personal issues, such as drug and alcohol addictions, aggression issues, family violence, and interpersonal problems. The goal of the program is to assist individuals on their personal healing journey through the teaching of survival skills and Cree traditions.
The journey is in its 19th year and operates on a local and regional level. “This year was our youngest group ever,” said Jimmy Blacksmith, Administrator for Building Healthy Communities at the Mistissini Band Council.
“It was started by Jimmy Gunner and Kenny Wapachee. This is how people were helped back in the day before the communities were as developed,” said Blacksmith. “To this day the teachers instil traditional values in a peaceful environment, in order to help the participants be stronger, more aware of themselves, and heal. And it works.”
This year, the participants reported that the time spent in the bush was very peaceful. One of the only criticisms they had was that the walk was too short. “They told me things like the time out there helped them clear their head,” Blacksmith told the Nation. “Unfortunately we weren’t able to get a counsellor to accompany us this year, and some of the participants wanted to have someone out there to talk about their feelings with.”
The participants were flown three hours north on a bush plane and then walked back, stopping at three traplines, to Mistissini over the course of a month. The first two weeks are dedicated to learning ice fishing, trapping and hunting. Then the participants start walking for about 10 km per day between the traplines. And while the point of the program is to have the participants feel the peacefulness of being out on the land alone, they are never too far from snowmobile trails in case something goes wrong.
For Blacksmith, who is in his first year of administering the program, it was stressful to see the participants leave. “They were dropped off on February 6 and they arrived back in the community on March 6,” said Blacksmith. “It was very intense for me while they were gone, so it was a big relief for me when they returned, safe and sound.”
Blacksmith was very pleased with the results of his first year of involvement with the program. “Some of this year’s group have been really inspired by the experience and during their time out there they came together and helped each other out,” reported Blacksmith. “A few of the participants have even moved directly from the local level onto the regional version of the program.”
Photos by Ian Diamond (Journey of Hope) and Brendan Forward (Mistissini Wellness Walkers)