A walk to remember: Labrador Innu, Inuit come together for 88-km journey of hope

By Day 3, Sybilla Bennett was thinking about giving up.

She was tired. Sleeping in a tent was cozy, but it was hard to get comfortable. She had walked all over Hopedale trying to prepare for this journey, but her training fell short.

The day before, Bennett barely shuffled along, taking baby steps. She was worn out and didn't think she could finish the 88-kilometre trek to Natuashish.

But Bennett couldn't quit. Her nine-year-old daughter beamed when she learned Mom was joining the walk. She needed to finish.

"Once I told her that I was doing it, I could just see it — that I was making her proud," Bennett recalled, "so it motivated me."

Bennett is one of about 50 people who walked from Hopedale to Natuashish earlier this month. People from the two communities — one Inuit and one Innu — worked together to arrange the journey they hoped would heal, while at the same time send a message to others struggling with grief.

The walk started as a tribute to 18-year-old James Poker. The young Innu man froze to death on the ice between the two neighbouring communities back in 2015.

Friends and family say he was trying to make it to Hopedale, so in 2016 they decided to finish what he started. The group was welcomed to Hopedale with a community feast, and a partnership was born. This year, people from Hopedale joined the walk, this time travelling in the opposite direction.

'Our people were struggling'

"This is how the people deal with issues in their life. It was a way to go back to our roots in dealing with issues in our life, and grief and loss is one of them," said Rachel Saunders, a program co-ordinator with the Nunatsiavut department of health and social development.

Land-based healing is a critical part of mental health-care in both Inuit and Innu culture. It's about reconnecting with traditional practices lost due to colonization and modernization.

Labrador's indigenous communities have suicide rates drastically higher than those in the rest of the province. Every one of the Hopedale walkers, or Hope Walkers, as they called themselves, has lost someone to suicide.

"We could see that our people were struggling with dealing with their grief and loss," Saunders said. "So we thought this would be a really good idea to help people on their healing journey."

Winnie Abel's inspiration was her son, James. The 21-year-old died by suicide last year.

"He was the type of person who loved to go out hunting and wooding with his father. He loved the land and I decided to walk for him," she said.

After three days and two nights trudging through snow and ice, Abel and the others were emotional when they arrived in Natuashish, and surprised to find a crowd waiting for them.

Abel said she felt transformed after returning home.

"I used to hold back a lot of stuff inside me," she said. "(The walk) just made me feel a lot lighter."

A chance to reflect

Piercy Boase said he felt stronger after the walk, too. "Like a million dollars," to be exact.

Boase said he was walking on behalf of his two daughters: Kitora, who died by suicide when she was 19; and Gerri, who nearly died last year after falling asleep outside. She lost a leg and eight fingers to frostbite.

Boase said the walk was a chance to reflect on what he'd lost, and to talk with other people who knew his pain.

"You think a lot when you're walking hard," he said, adding that he'd like to do it again someday.

According to Rachel Saunders, Boase will probably have the chance. She's not sure if the people of Natuashish want to walk again next year, but she hopes to organize another trip out on the land. She's seen the transformative power of walking and she thinks there are even more people who'd like to go next time.

"It makes me feel really humbled because they did this work for themselves. To better themselves." Saunders said.

"It's good to know we have people here who are ready to help themselves."