Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Dad stands behind teen activist's trek

Says daughter facing racial taunts from passersby

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Alyssa Nepinak turned 13 this week, an event she marked by taking on some very adult challenges.

The Grade 7 student is walking from Winnipeg to Ottawa, part of an environmental group that supports the aims of the Idle No More movement. It's a daunting task, made more difficult by racial taunts and slurs she has faced along the way.

"They wouldn't serve us in a restaurant," the young teen said in a telephone interview from Kenora. "A guy said some things at a gas station."

Those things, says her father, Clarence, included a man rolling down his window and shouting at his then-12-year-old daughter.

"He said, 'Get an effing job, you effing Indian'," Nepinak said. "You can't even get a social insurance number when you're 12. Why would he say that to a kid?"

He walked with his daughter from the legislature grounds to Deacon's Corner when the group left Winnipeg March 28. They hope to reach Ottawa on May 26.

As they walked to Deacon's Corner, "some guy in a truck called us f___ing dirty Indians."

Melinda Thomas is one of the adults on the walk. She drives the support vehicle that transports the walkers when they're not on foot.

Thomas says when the group arrived at a restaurant in Richer, they were refused service.

"We went in to order some food and we were ignored. We could hear the two ladies (who worked there) talking. One said, 'Dirty Indians' and the other lady said, 'Are they gone yet?' They wouldn't take our order."

The group walked out. Thomas says the slurs hurt, but the group doesn't get into arguments.

"We just say 'Have a nice day' and keep on walking."

Alyssa called her dad from the restaurant.

"She said, 'Dad, they won't let us eat here,' " he says. "She sounded sad."

Lee Guetre is co-owner of the Richer Inn Motor Hotel. He was at the restaurant when the group arrived and disputes their version.

"It's totally false," he said Tuesday. "They wanted pizzas right away. I make everything from scratch. It takes 35 minutes. They didn't want to wait. I told them to order burgers."

Guetre says he has plenty of First Nations customers.

"I've met natives I didn't like at all, but I've met Polish people and Ukrainians I didn't like at all either."

Despite the difficulties, Nepinak supports his daughter's decision to participate.

"I'm not really political, but I've voiced my opinion to her and stuff," he said. "She's having rights taken away. I want her to understand that."

He says he's told her her grandfather wasn't given the right to vote until 1967, and First Nations people used to be tossed in jail if they left their reserve without their treaty cards.

"She needs to understand what has happened in this country."

Still, when he agreed to let Alyssa walk, he didn't think she'd last.

"I was thinking maybe she'd make it to the Ontario border and give up," he laughed. "Like any 12-year-old kid, she wanted to have her voice heard. But I didn't think she'd stick with it."

The group wants to see lakes and waters protected. Alyssa Nepinak says she used to fish Pine Lake with her dad.

"We can't anymore because the lake is polluted."

Arthur E. Wright, Alyssa's Winnipeg school, is charting her progress on a large map.

They've set up a blog so teachers and fellow students can offer their support and encouragement.

They hope she can educate other students on what she is doing and why.

Clarence Nepinak consulted with the school before he allowed his daughter to take the time off for the walk.

He was driving to Kenora Tuesday morning with an armload of homework for her.

"I was trying to figure out what she'd learn on the walk. Life skills, for sure. She's going to meet a lot of ignorant people, but she's going to meet some good people, too. For her English, I told her to keep a journal. I haven't figured out the math yet."

What he has figured out is he's proud of his daughter for getting involved in activism at an early age. He hopes she learns her voice matters and the name-callers don't represent the average person.

Thomas says she's teaching young walkers to keep their heads held high.

"People can say what they want. They can call us dirty natives. We just keep walking."

lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 3, 2013 A6

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About Lindor Reynolds

National Newspaper Award winner Lindor Reynolds began work at the Free Press as a 17-year-old proofreader. It was a rough introduction to the news business.

Many years later, armed with a university education and a portfolio of published work, she was hired as a Free Press columnist. During her 20-plus years on the job she has written for every section in the paper, with the exception of Business. She’ll get around to them some day.

Lindor has received considerable recognition for her writing. Her awards include the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ general interest award and the North American Travel Journalists Association top prize.
Her work on Internet luring led to an amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada and her coverage of the child welfare system prompted a change to Manitoba Child and Family Services Act to make the safety of children paramount.

She has earned three citations of merit for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and has been awarded a Distinguished Alumni commendation from the University of Winnipeg. Lindor was also named a YMCA/YWCA  Woman of Distinction.

She is married with four daughters. If her house was on fire and the kids and dog were safe, she’d grab her passport.
 
lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

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