Wrapped in ceremonial white, hooded jackets, nearly 300 young people arrived Monday on Parliament Hill to cap off a marathon winter trek through the Canadian hinterland inspired by the Idle No More movement.
Hundreds more supporters filled the steps beneath the Peace Tower to greet the walkers as they made their way to the Parliament Buildings from nearby Victoria Island on the Ottawa River.
Amid the relentless pounding of ceremonial First Nations drummers and the chants and songs of marchers, dozens of speakers pleaded with the Harper government to alleviate the harsh living conditions on some reserves.
The group, known as the Nishiyuu Walkers, were celebrated as heroes as they were greeted with cheering and wild applause throughout the afternoon-long demonstration.
Their long walk began when David Kawapit Jr., a 17-year-old from the isolated community of Whapmagoostui in northern Quebec, decided to trudge the staggering 1,600 kilometres from the edge of Hudson Bay to Ottawa in support of better conditions for aboriginal people.
Kawapit repeatedly flashed his broad smile as he was surrounded by supporters in the march from Victoria Island.
Since the coldest days of January, when Kawapit and a half-dozen supporters embarked on their journey with snowshoes on their feet and their supplies in tow, their ranks slowly swelled to several hundred people.
Organizers said about 270 walkers in total completed the journey to Ottawa.
Green party Leader Elizabeth May jumped and cheered as the group ended their “awe-inspiring” trek.
She accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper — who opted to be in Toronto for the arrival of two giant pandas on loan from China — of ignoring the plight of Canada’s aboriginal population.
“It says a lot that Stephen Harper isn’t here, that he’s greeting the pandas,” said May. “It says a lot that we need to move heaven and earth to meet First Nations on a nation-to-nation basis with respect.”
A Facebook group, called The Journey of Nishiyuu and boasting more than 33,500 members, also derided Harper for attending a panda photo-op instead of greeting the walkers.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt met with some of the young people who completed the trek, and he acknowledged their “determination and commitment,” said the minister’s spokesman.
“They met probably just over a half hour in total,” Jason MacDonald said in an email. “He expressed a desire to engage youth in the key issues facing communities across the country. He also accepted an invite to their community this summer.”
During question period in the House of Commons, New Democrat Romeo Saganash said First Nations members need something more concrete.
“It’s too late for broken promises and paternalism,” Saganash said.
Valcourt said the government wants to help First Nations develop the skills and expertise they need to make the most of their natural resources.
The trek to Ottawa was arduous for many of those who took part.
When they arrived last week on the First Nation reserve of Kitigan Zibi, about 130 kilometres north of Ottawa, nearly two dozen of the walkers needed treatment for foot injuries.
Three members of the group were later sent to hospital in nearby Maniwaki, Que., treated, and released.