Each day that 67-year-old Virgil Moar wakes up on the side of the Trans-Canada Highway, he turns to his companions, both decades his junior, and he says “Top of the morning to you.”
He says it because - in his words - it sounds really damn cheerful.
“Sometimes you want to drop-kick him,” joked Janette Klassen. “But you just smile back and say good morning.”
A little levity goes a long way on a journey like theirs.
After walking from Winnipeg to the former Kamloops Indian Residential School last year to honour residential school children following the discovery of 215 unmarked burials there, the group decided to travel the other direction this time around, from Manitoba to Nova Scotia, where they will touch the Atlantic Ocean on behalf of children and survivors.
Their goal is not to raise money - in fact, the journey is mostly self-funded after a long winter of work. They aim rather to raise awareness and to reflect spiritually on what so many Indigenous children have suffered.
Jazz Lavallee and Moar do the walking, while Klassen follows in a white car stamped with small orange hands and a sign that reads “Walkers ahead.” She also does a lot to take care of the group - help with chores like laundry, cooking, or setting up tents goes a long way after five to seven hours on foot.
Lavallee, in particular, walks with a weight on her shoulders - and that’s no metaphor. She strives never to put down the 30-pound bundle she carries on her back. She never leaves it in the car. With Moar watching for danger up front, and Klassen close behind, she focuses on carrying the bundle and staying kind, staying light, and putting one foot in front of the other.
“Everything on here was gifted by a survivor of residential, day school, child experimentation, the Sixties Scoop - people that we’ve met along the way,” Lavallee said.
Inside, her bundle is full of moccasins, which she started collecting ahead of the group’s walk west last year. The first pair was stitched by a man whose father had spent his childhood at the residential school in Kamloops, a coincidence that felt meaningful for Lavallee.
“My mom looked at me and said, ‘If you need a sign that you have to do this, this is it,’” she recalls.
Since then, Lavallee’s reflections and her interactions with people she has met have confirmed to her that the decision to walk was the right one.
“Every single step I take, every single nation that we stop in, every town that we stop in, every hand that we shake, every eye contact that we make is a verification that it’s working,” she said.
“Every horn on the highway,” added Moar.
“They see us on the highway,” said Lavallee. “They’re going to go home and say, ‘I saw these people walking down the highway in orange,’ and then that continues the talk, so the awareness doesn’t fall.”
However, their plans to walk on the highway were disrupted five minutes into entering Quebec, when the Surete du Quebec (SQ) refused to allow them to continue without a permit - the same problem faced by another pair of Indigenous cross-country walkers mere weeks ago.
Rather than defy the police, the group has decided to tour First Nations territories for the duration of their time in Quebec before resuming the walk in New Brunswick.
“Life is so sweet sometimes,” said Moar. “You get to meet all these nations and you get invited into territories. We always make sure that they know that we’re in their territory. We don’t go march in there - no, we go in there humbly.”
They went straight to Kanesatake after the incident with the SQ and before making their way to Kahnawake on Saturday, where they have been all week after encountering car troubles. They plan to resume their journey this weekend.
“I take my hat off to them whole-heartedly,” said Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) chief Harry Rice, who met with the group along with MCK chief Arnold Boyer. “I think what they’re doing, it’s a great movement.”
Rice, whose father attended the Spanish residential school, said he intends to gift a pair of moccasins to Lavallee before the group departs - “not something from MCK, not something from Harry Rice the chief, but from Harry Rice the child of a residential school survivor. I’d like to offer that to them, me as a human being. I was very touched, and I know chief Boyer - we were both very impressed with them.”
While the walkers expect their trip to wrap up a few weeks from now, this is not the end of their epic voyage in honour of Indigenous children who have suffered at the hands of colonial institutions.
Next year, they plan to walk up north to touch the ocean again. In 2024, they intend to walk south to Louisiana. “And then we’re going to close it by driving back to Kamloops, where the journey began. And we’ll walk from Kamloops, B.C., to the west coast, fully submerging ourselves in the ocean and bringing the walk to a close,” said Lavallee.
Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door