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Chained to the Indian Act

Walk centres on aboriginal issues

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A Winnipeg man is walking across the country in a bid to gather public support for aboriginal issues.

Leo Baskatawang, 33, said his 41/2-month journey to Ottawa is in response to what he said is another failure by the federal government to put concrete plans in place to deal with social and economic issues that plague aboriginal communities.

"There is alcoholism, disease, unemployment and these all stem from colonial policies and legislation, the Indian Act," Baskatawang said as he and his support team stopped for lunch at a restaurant on Fermor Avenue. "I'm walking across Canada to raise awareness of these issues."

Baskatawang said the catalyst for his walk was what he described as the failed meeting in January between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Shawn Atleo. Instead of providing a blueprint for massive social and economic change, it produced only an agreement to produce a progress report in a year's time.

About 100 people held a demonstration in Ottawa in January, and Baskatawang said he was dismayed.

"On any given day in Ottawa there are probably 100 people protesting something," he said. "There should have been a bigger demonstration."

A stranger to social activism, Baskatawang said he hopes his walk will galvanize the aboriginal community and will attract several thousand people to join him when he reaches Ottawa on Sept. 3, to press the federal Tories for changes in how they deal with the aboriginal community.

Baskatawang was born in Dryden, Ont., a member of the Lac des Milles Lac First Nation. He joined the U.S. army in May 2002, served two tours in Iraq as a member of the famous 101st Airborne and was discharged in December 2007. In 2008, he moved to Winnipeg where he enrolled at the University of Manitoba, eventually graduating with a bachelor's degree in native studies. He is working on his master's in native studies.

Ashley Bottle, 30, is also on the walk, serving as his spiritual and cultural mentor.

The two men started their walk April 23 in Vancouver, averaging 35 kilometres a day. They reached Winnipeg by the start of the long weekend. He visited Brokenhead and Sagkeeng while travelling through Manitoba and expects to reach Kenora by Friday or Saturday.

Baskatawang is doing the walk while chained to a copy of the Indian Act, which trails behind him. He's already worn out a dozen copies.

Baskatawang ran into trouble on Friday in Portage la Prairie, when he was arrested by the RCMP for an outstanding warrant on a probation violation stemming from a 2007 conviction in Tennessee for assault. Baskatawang said one of the terms of probation was that he wasn't supposed to leave the United States, and moving to Winnipeg was a breach.

However, he said the sheriff's office in Montgomery County informed the RCMP it would not seek his transfer and he was released after three hours in custody.

Baskatawang said he believes his arrest and detention were politically motivated.

"I'm beginning to draw attention and so this was just a government attempt to slow us down and shut us up," he said.

Baskatawang said they began the walk with little fanfare and drew little attention -- from inside and outside the aboriginal community -- as he travelled across B.C. and Alberta, but attention focused on him when he reached Saskatchewan.

"Momentum is building," Baskatawang said. "Communities are helping us out. It feels nice when people come out and stop us and give us a bowl of soup."


-- STARTED: April 23, in Vancouver -- WILL END: Sept. 3, in Ottawa

-- WANT MORE INFO?: Leo Baskatawang can be reached via the Facebook page, March.4.Justice, or on twitter @march_4_justice

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 3, 2012 A3

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