After a lifetime of walking alongside indigenous people and advocating for their treaty rights, 87-year-old Henry Neufeld of Winnipeg plans to take the journey a few steps farther.
"I’m trying to make the public aware of the deficiencies (in keeping) the promises that were made," says the retired Mennonite church worker, who became fluent in Ojibway after working for two decades in northern Manitoba communities.
The volunteer hospital chaplain and woodworker is the oldest participant among dozens walking 600 kilometres for the Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights, which is lobbying the federal government to fully implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Sponsored jointly by Mennonite Church Canada and Christian Peacemaker Teams, the trek begins Sunday from Kitchener, Ont., with eight Winnipeggers among the 30 core walkers.
Their route takes a meandering path along city streets, country roads and secondary highways to arrive in Ottawa on May 14.
"It’s not just about the destination. It’s about the journey and the intention with which we walk," says co-organizer Steve Heinrichs of Mennonite Church Canada, who will be joined by his 11-year-old daughter Abby, who is indigenous.
Both a political act and spiritual pilgrimage, Heinrichs says the impetus for the trip grew out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which calls on churches and religious groups to engage in action and public dialogue to support the declaration in Article 48.
After walking up to 35 kilometres each day, participants plan to hold daily conversation circles and informal meetings with the wide variety of churches and community groups hosting them.
They will also talk about their pilgrimage with the dozens of people expected to join them for a day or two, says Kathy Moorhead Thiessen, a Winnipeg-based member of Christian Peacemaker Teams.
"One of the reasons we felt it was important to do it is we have heard from our (indigenous) partners ‘Teach your people so we don’t have to do it,’ " says Thiessen, who has been walking 12 kilometres daily to prepare for the trip.
After years of opposition, the Canadian government adopted the UN declaration in 2016 and promised to fully implement it, but has yet to do so. Last year, NDP MP Romeo Saganash introduced a private member’s bill that would ensure the laws of Canada are in harmony with the declaration.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission also calls for the implementation of the declaration, which ensures the basic human rights indigenous people need to be healthy, says University of Winnipeg instructor and activist Leah Gazan, who is joining the pilgrimage for several days.
"For myself as an indigenous person (the walk) isn’t an educational effort, but part of fighting for my rights as an indigenous person," says the member of Wood Mountain Lakota Nation in southwestern Saskatchewan.
Organizers consulted with indigenous advisers, including Gazan, in planning the trip, says Heinrichs, adding the pilgrimage is more about settlers decolonizing themselves than telling indigenous people what to do.
"The (focus) is not about how we engage indigenous people," he says.
"It’s about how we reconstruct our relationships so we can come to a better place together."
But first, they walk. Like any pilgrimage, the physical effort of putting one foot ahead of the other for hours on end can clear the mind and provide space for reflection and understanding, says Thiessen.
"Christians have done it, indigenous people have done it, other faiths have done it," she says of the long history of pilgrimages.
This journey of thousands of steps will continue as participants act on what they hear along the way, says Erin Froese, who planned the pilgrimage for a course at Canadian Mennonite University.
"I think the big point of the pilgrimage is not just the walking part or the destination, but the return," says the third-year environmental studies student.
For Neufeld, who spent 20 years working as a teacher and minister in Little Grand Rapids, Pauingassi and Moose Lake, joining the walk is a way to honour his indigenous friends. He’s taking a little extra baggage with him, including his hand-carved walking stick, a hand drum and a treaty medal he mounted on wood for the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba.
"I’m taking one (a medal) on our walk to remind me we are all treaty people," says Neufeld.