TEMAGAMI — At the top of the hill, 16 walkers emerge, led and followed by trucks that straddle the shoulder of the road and act as buffers. The convoy slowly proceeds south down Highway 11 and enters the town of Temagami at around 12:30 p.m. on August 8. Leading them is Patricia Ballantyne, 48, of Deschambault Lake, part of Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation, who’s visiting the community as part of what she calls the Walk of Sorrow.
It was after the discovery of 215 children’s remains near a former residential school in Kamloops that she decided to march nearly 3,000 kilometres from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, to Ottawa. “When I heard about the Kamloops 215, I couldn’t hold it in anymore. It angered me, and I didn’t want to be angry,” says Ballantyne, a survivor of Prince Albert Indian Residential School, who started the journey on June 5.
“We’re walking to heal and create awareness,” says Ken Thomas, who, along with his wife Cheryl, helps the group organize everything from booking campsites to preparing meals.
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Each morning, the march starts with a smudge and a prayer. Most wearing orange shirts that read “every child matters,” the group walks until nightfall (some take turns resting in their vehicles). They’re averaging 30 to 60 kilometres per day in northern Ontario, where the rocky, hilly Canadian Shield makes for a tougher hike than the prairies. The group has travelled through rain and heat and faced challenges including twisted ankles, flat tires — and even death threats.
But volunteers such as Cheryl say they’ve been encouraged by response they’ve met with in the towns, cities, and First Nations communities. “They tell us, ‘You don’t know what it means for us to have you here and go on this walk for us all,’” Cheryl says. “But they don’t know what it means to have their support and generosity; it’s like we’re giving to each other.”
On August 9, the walkers reached North Bay, where they rested for a few days with hosts in nearby Nipissing First Nation before heading to Mattawa and the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation. They’re hoping to reach Ottawa by August 22.
TVO.org speaks with Ballantyne about healing, listening — and the kind of change she wants to see.
TVO.org: What impelled you to start this walk?
Patricia Ballantyne: A walk is a time to clear your mind, think about everything. It gives you time to be with the Creator and just be out there in the fresh air. As you know, our ancestors used to walk all over the place. It’s in our culture to walk with our ancestors.
For myself and my own story, over the years, once I left the residential school, I learned to block it and hide it and not talk about it, thinking that was the best thing for me. Where it first hit me hard was during the [Independent Assessment Process] compensation package. We had to come up with every single little detail and write it down and then go into arbitration and speak it out loud. That was the first time I really shared my story. After that, I just fell. I went down from there.
So this is the second part of my healing, where I have to get away from all that negativity and start really thinking about how my grandkids will see me and what they will know.
TVO.org: What kind of change or action do you want the Walk of Sorrow to bring about?
Ballantyne: We hope that the government starts listening to what the First Nations people know. They know what they want in their communities and what they want for the future of their children. We will hope to see that policy changes are made and that First Nations people are involved in those changes of policy. And each community is different. They all know what they need and want in their communities and how they want to go about setting these policies for the programs that will encourage and empower our First Nations people.
TVO.org: Did you do anything to prepare for the walk, before setting out?
Ballantyne: Once I decided to go, I just headed out. I didn’t do any preparation or anything.
TVO.org: You’ve been going over 60 days now. Have there been any moments of doubt, any challenges?
Ballantyne: We have those people who just say, “Stop crying. Everybody knows about the residential schools, so you don’t need to keep reminding us.” But we need to be heard. They need to quit saying “Forget about it; that happened in the past.” No, it’s not the past. It’s right here. It’s a continuing cycle: our foster-care systems and our boarding schools, you name it — it’s still here.
TVO.org: Cheryl and Ken Thomas mentioned that, before they joined, they donated several pairs of shoes to you. How many shoes have you gone through? You’ve now travelled around 2,500 kilometres.
Ballantyne: This trip, I’d say about 10 pairs of running shoes. Every three days, we will change our shoes. After walking for a few days in a pair of shoes, they start flattening and wearing out.
TVO.org: When did people start joining you in your walk and what kind of support have they provided?
Ballantyne: I intended on going alone. And then then my niece, my stepdaughter, and my friend joined me in Prince Albert. From there, I just kept growing, and people kept joining along the way. Ken and Cheryl Thomas continue to keep us grounded and keep us mentally stable here. They have worked with youth and families and children over the years, so they know how to handle things if anyone has an emotional or mental breakdown. They’re keeping us all safe: our spirits, our mental health, our physical health. They’re a very important part of the group.
TVO.org: Earlier, you mentioned your niece, Sasha Michele. She told me that, through this walk, she’s been able to connect with you as a family member and learn from you. What has her presence meant to you?
Ballantyne: I didn’t see my niece grow up, because I wasn’t in the community. It’s great to see and get to know her. I’ve learned that she’s a very athletic person and also very spiritual person. She brings us happiness in our group, so it’s awesome to have her here. Her mom — my sister — and her dad were in the residential schools, so that means a lot that she’s coming up here and representing the family. She has a strong spirit.
TVO.org: I also saw a little boy in your group. What’s his name?
Ballantyne: His name is Carlyle. He’s seven years old. He came with his grandma, and he reminds us every day why we walk. He’s a reminder that we are walking for children and our future. It is important that he is here with us to keep us grounded and focused on why we were walking.
TVO.org: What has the reception been like in the communities you’ve visited?
Ballantyne: They’ve been supportive. These communities are starting to work together — the First Nations communities and also the municipalities, so it’s good to see they’re starting to open that dialogue with one another. It’s awesome to see this hope that there is change going to be happening and also that the healing process of our people is starting to come, that they’re starting to heal on their own journey.
TVO.org: You’ve talked about how this is a second stage of your healing. What does healing mean to you? What does it look like?
Ballantyne: For me, it’s learning to slowly forgive the people who hurt me. It’s learning to forgive myself and start walking that path my ancestors walked. All my ancestors love getting back to the land, getting to really know yourself.
TVO.org: What are you hoping for once you get to Ottawa and Parliament Hill?
Ballantyne: Just that people will listen, especially more non-First Nations people, be out there listening to the stories, and that people share their stories with the Canadian population. That way it’s out there. That way, they really know that it continued on for centuries. So that’s all I’m hoping for: that they come together and listen to our stories.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Support is available to anyone affected by their experience at residential schools. A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support to former students and those affected. People can access emotional-support and crisis-referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.
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