Today, four Winnipeg Christians take their first steps on a 550-kilometre journey to acknowledge hurts stretching back more than a century.
It's part pilgrimage and part solidarity walk. Three men and one woman will brave March's unpredictable elements as they walk from Stoney Knoll, Sask., to Edmonton over the next three weeks to participate in the last event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (March 27 to 30).
"The walking is to align myself with (residential school) survivors and to honour those who have been hurt, and to honour the forward-moving process," explains Nathan Thorpe, 30, of his reasons for the upcoming journey.
Organized by the Manitoba chapter of the Student Christian Movement and sponsored by Mennonite Church Canada, this pilgrimage -- called an honour walk -- pays tribute to the experiences of the thousands of aboriginal children sent to church-run, government-funded Indian residential schools, explains Brad Langendoen, 27, staff person for SCM in Manitoba.
"The walkers and the fasters are using their bodies to recognize survivor stories," he says.
About 10 people in Winnipeg, including several students at Canadian Mennonite University, plan to support the walkers and their cause through prayer and fasting throughout their journey, which coincides with the first half of the Christian season of Lent. The progress of the walkers can be tracked at www.honourwalk.ca.
Inspired in part by recent long treks by aboriginal groups, Langendoen says the walk will be a physical and spiritual pilgrimage for the participants as they battle the elements on their daily 30-kilometre treks.
"I think it's important to encounter the Creator, the land as we walk across it," he says. "It's also important to confront the colonizer (in us) in some really important ways."
Thorpe plans to pray and reflect as he puts one winter-booted foot in front of the other for 17 days.
"Walking and thinking and being in nature have been spiritual activities for me," says Thorpe, a piano teacher and recent musical therapy graduate.
"The physical exertion of that is spiritual for me."
For walker Ann Heinrichs, the only woman on the journey -- two other female participants withdrew due to injuries -- this journey of many thousands of footsteps will connect her to the family histories of her two adopted girls, both of aboriginal ancestry.
"For me, there's the recognition that my daughters wouldn't be my daughters if there hadn't been that systemic damage to their communities," says Heinrichs, 40, whose husband, Steve, will be fasting.
"It's a way of honouring their birth families and recognizing we are part of what happened to them."
The fourth walker is 30-year-old Dutch citizen Laurens Thiessen van Esch, who recently moved to Winnipeg with his Canadian wife.
Langendoen and the other walkers acknowledge their experiences as white, middle-class, educated Christians differs vastly from those of aboriginal people who experienced abuse at residential schools. He hopes the walk provides time to reflect on their places of privilege as well as the opportunity to meet aboriginals along the way.
"We want to see within ourselves the potential for good, but also for evil," he says. "There's lots of journeying within us with the past."
The walk must be more than reflective, says Rev. Stan McKay, a Cree elder and former moderator of the United Church of Canada, and also include conversations with aboriginal people, followed by serious reflecting on their wisdom and insights.
"If they (the walkers) have learning and insight and they engage their own community in what shape reconciliation might take place, it might have potential," McKay says.