Hundreds of aboriginal people streamed out of The Forks, led by the rhythmic sound of hand drums, to fill the length of Broadway up to the provincial legislature Friday as part of the Idle No More national protest.
Some carried placards denouncing Prime Minister Stephen Harper by name. Others joked with friends in the crowd and some were not aboriginal.
Organizers put the number of protesters at 2,000. Winnipeg police, acting as escorts, put the total closer to 500.
"Settlers in solidarity" read one sandwich board in neon yellow that stood out against a sea of dark winter parkas and extra layers of clothing that most marchers wore.
"I've been studying a lot of courses at the University of Winnipeg, and you realize how dystopic Canada is against aboriginal people," said Emilie Anderson Gregoire, a diminutive non-native woman tucked inside the sandwich board with the supportive slogan.
By the term dystopic, she said she meant white settlers who came and shoved aboriginal people out of the way.
"This is their land... we've been here 100 years and we still need to find a way to share it with them."
That's the lesson organizers want to spread across the country and it's a big part of the reason behind street rallies and flash-mob round dances popping up in shopping malls from Cornwall, Ont., to Edmonton.
In Ottawa, hundreds of First Nations protesters waved flags, chanted slogans and shook a collective fist at the federal government Friday as they gathered on Parliament Hill to put Canada on notice they would be "idle no more."
More than 1,000 protesters, a group stretching several city blocks, marched through the streets of the capital after meeting with Theresa Spence, the chief of northern Ontario's troubled Attawapiskat First Nation, who is on a hunger strike.
Julie Vaux, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said the rallies did not change the government's position. The Conservatives insist they are taking strong action to address aboriginal concerns.
Prayers for her were offered at the Winnipeg protest and demonstrations in support of her cause also took place in the United States.
"Our real objective is to shatter Canadians' imaginations about us and replace it with a new understanding of indigenous reality," said Jerry Daniels, from Long Plain First Nation near Portage la Prairie, an organizer of the Winnipeg demonstration.
"That reality is to protect the land and the water and our cultural identity that's enshrined in our sovereignty rights," he said.
Idle No More burst onto Twitter feeds and Facebook three weeks ago with four women in Saskatchewan who worried publicly about the impact of the federal government's omnibus budget bill and its provisions to ease protections against aboriginal land surrenders and environmental legislation for lakes and rivers.
It touched off a firestorm on social media, led Spence to start her hunger strike and brought thousands of mostly young aboriginal people surging into the political arena to assert their treaty rights.
In Winnipeg Friday morning, northern Manitoba chiefs led a motorcade of about 80 vehicles on a continuous loop around the Richardson International Airport to create traffic congestion.
"Most were supportive, but there was one woman named Judy who said holding travellers up didn't help our cause.
"I wanted to tell her we've been good little Indians for the other 364 days of the year," Chief Donavan Fontaine of Sagkeeng First Nation said in frustration afterward.
Fontaine couldn't resist tweaking Manitoba Hydro later, telling band members and a reporter he planned an explosive delivery to Hydro's new downtown corporate headquarters.
Security guards waited inside the Hydro headquarters' glass-and-stone lobby as Fontaine calmly sat and waited half an hour to be greeted. When he finally was, he handed the official a can of baked beans.
"I told him detonation was unpredictable," Fontaine deadpanned.
"Then I told him it was a can of beans. It was symbolic. We have six dams in our traditional lands and Manitoba Hydro has been on our lands for 100 years. Our relationship is volatile."
Supporters gathered at the Oodena Circle, a traditional meeting place at The Forks, for prayers, songs and a ceremony where everyone was offered a symbolic sip of water before speeches from elders and other dignitaries.
"I'm so grateful for our people who have always had a loving relationship with the land and for our traditions of kindness and sharing. That's what we have to hold this country together," said Cree film producer and former Liberal MP Tina Keeper.
"We will stand up to this government, and it is long overdue."
Marchers were greeted with the sound of a single voice singing an ancient Anishinaabe spiritual song as they reached the legislature and listened to more speeches.
The event wrapped up with a friendly round dance in front of the legislature.
-- with files from The Canadian Press
Policing protest easy assignment
CITY police were out in force Friday to monitor the Idle No More demonstration, bringing in the crowd-control unit in case protesters entered the legislature.
Police also did crowd surveillance outside the building.
A police source said rally organizers were concerned members of a street gang called the Crazy Indians were using the march for their own purposes. Four members of the Crazy Indians were seen outside the legislature and at least two more were at The Forks segment of the rally.
Photos of gang members -- none showing their faces -- were posted on the Crazy Indians Brotherhood Canada Facebook site late Friday afternoon.
The source said Manitoba members of the Crazy Indians have associated with the Rock Machine motorcycle gang. The Rock Machine are rivals of the Hells Angels.
A second police source said Idle No More march organizers asked police for assistance to ensure the demonstration was peaceful. There were only two incidents reported -- one involving a demonstrator carrying a metallic axe and a second in which demonstrators near Broadway and Carlton Street ripped up a racist sign a man on the sidewalk was holding. Police intervened in neither case, saying they were present only to maintain marchers' well-being.
In a statement later, the Winnipeg Police Service reported: "This event proved to be an excellent opportunity for the Winnipeg Police Service to partner with aboriginals in our province, to share a greater understanding of one another and work towards a better future for all Manitobans.
"This event was peaceful, and the 'round dance' around the legislative building itself stood as an example of what can be accomplished when we work towards a common cause together."
-- Bruce Owen