BANFF – When Jasmine Lavallee learned of the discovery of 215 children in an unmarked grave from the former Kamloops Residential School on the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, she was angry.
The Indigenous woman from Winnipeg tried to ignore it so that the anger wouldn’t consumer her, but it still persisted.
It wasn’t until her mom and friend Virgil Moar – both day school survivors – suggested she use her anger for good.
“The more I tried to avoid it, the more I heard about it,” she said. “Virgil said I should put my anger towards making a difference.”
The 38-year-old was born with dislocated hips and her mom was told she’d likely be wheelchair bound the rest of her life. She remembers the anger making her feet feel as if they were burning and took it as a sign to begin a walk from Winnipeg to Kamloops to raise awareness.
“I was given a second chance to walk. It all made sense that I had to walk for the children. I knew it was crazy, but I knew in my heart it was what I had to do. I went back to my mom and Virgil and told them and he just said, ‘I’m coming with you.’”
She reached out to her friend River Steele, who lived in Calgary, and he immediately joined up.
It was decided to begin the journey on Sept. 1 from the Assiniboia Residential School in Winnipeg. The date coincided with the start of the school year to give greater recognition for the children who didn’t come home from residential schools.
Lavallee and Moar began the journey with Steele following in a Jeep Compass before Moar’s brother gave them an RV to use as their team grew. Janette Klassen joined in Brandon, MB and Vernon Dustyhorn in Regina, Sask. They also rely on Jenessa Suszynski from their home base in Winnipeg to help out and offer support.
Moar said the group represents the life cycle of Indigenous culture with youth, adults and an Elder all part of the journey.
Now Moar walks ahead, Lavallee in the middle and Dustyhorn behind as Lavallee calls them her “protectors.”
Prior to leaving, Lavallee and Moar collected moccasins to represent the children who were lost in residential schools. Each morning they perform a smudging ceremony to honour their memories and along the way they’ve continued to collect more.
Lavallee now has about 50 moccasins in a backpack that is with her at all times on the journey.
“Each pair has such a story, a memory, a life to it. There’s a lot more meaning to it,” she said. “We focus on what these children could have been because they’re Elders to us.”
The group arrived in Morley on Oct. 26 and were guided into the mountains by members of the Îyârhe Nakoda Nation (Stoney Nakoda) on Oct. 30. They spent the night in Canmore on Oct. 31 then Nov. 1 in Banff. They began the leg of the journey towards Lake Louise on Nov. 2 and arrived on Nov. 3.
Prior to leaving Banff, Lavallee said she and Moar each bought their sixth pair of shoes. They had done 1,454 kilometres in less than two months and were at 2,005,500 steps.
There’s no set distance they go each day. Some days have seen them go 30 or more kilometres, while others may only be a few kilometres as people stop along the Trans-Canada Highway to talk with them, offer stories and support.
“Time is a foreign concept. There’s no time. We don’t dwell on time. If we’re given four hours of daylight, well that’s what we walk,” Moar said.
Along the way they’ve camped along the road and sometimes in homes.
The Îyârhe Nakoda Nation also reached out to Parks Canada to ensure they would be able to travel through Kicking Horse Canyon to avoid a significant detour.
“They’re the guardians of the mountains,” Lavallee said of the Îyârhe Nakoda.
“I never thought I’d be walking through the mountains,” she said with a laugh.
Lavallee said the generosity of communities has been overwhelming, especially since they are not announcing their arrival so people are accommodating them upon reaching their destination for the evening.
With much of the relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canadians having a historically troubling past, Lavallee hopes all people can reconcile and move forward.
“There is a bit of mistrust, a trust that has been broken, so I wanted to show as part of the walk there are people out there who care,” she said. "We have so many people coming up and asking what can they do. We don’t want anything, we just want them to tell others what happened and why Indigenous people are coming out of a really dark path. We’re a good people. We ask people to go tell their kids because they’re the reconciliation. As long as we’re honest, you’ll start to see the change.”
With roughly 500km to go, the group said they’re encouraged by the support they’ve received from people along the path of the journey.
“My heart is with the survivors. We’re walking for the survivors to show them we care,” Lavallee said. "We’re walking for the children for a better future. I cannot turn around and turn in the same track twice because Canada has only gone backwards and this journey is about going forwards.”
To follow them on the journey, visit: www.facebook.com/215IWannaComeHome
The Indian Residential School Survivors Society can be contacted at 1-800-721-0066. The National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419. The First Nations Health Authority is at www.fnha.ca.