(Leo Baskatawang in the shadow of peace tower after cross-country walk with Indian act chained to his body. APTN/Photo)
APTN National News
OTTAWA–After 135 days walking across the country, Leo Baskatawang, an Iraq war veteran, climbed the stairs to Parliament Hill Tuesday dragging a copy of the Indian Act attached to his waist by a length of chain.
Baskatawang, who did two tours of Iraq with the U.S. military, said the end of his 4,400 kilometre journey, under the name March for Justice which began in Vancouver, was really the beginning of a new movement to scrap the Indian Act and replace it with Indigenous authored legislation to define the relationship with Canada.
“This is not the end of it,” said Baskatawang, 32. “I don’t think this will be the last time you hear of March for Justice. I think this will be an ongoing thing.”
He ended his journey with five other companions who he met at stops at places like Winnipeg and Thunder Bay.
Edmond Jack, 17, from Grassy Narrows First Nation in Ontario, is no stranger to long journeys. Two months ago, he walked from his community on the western edge of Ontario to Toronto to press for compensation over mercury that poisoned his people’s waters and land.
“When they told me what they were walking for to change the Indian Act and get legitimate representation in the government I thought it was a good place to learn more about the Indian Act,” said Jack. “I jumped right away and said I was going to join them.”
Every step of the way, Baskatawang and his companions dragged a copy of the Indian Act, the piece of legislation dating back to 1876 that governs the life of First Nations people living on-reserve.
“I recognize the need for change with how the government consistently treats our people with apathy, ignoring the issues that are affecting our communities,” he said. “I felt a strong obligation as a scholar to do something about it.”
The relentlessness of the pavement destroyed up to 40 of their copies, said Baskatawang. Once on Parliament Hill, Baskatawang, accompanied by dozens of his supporters, piled the remaining copies of the Indian Act, each contained in haggard and torn binders covered in duct tape, on the steps below the Peace Tower.
The meaning behind the imagery of the beaten copies of the Indian Act dragged across the country by Baskatawang was not lost on Saskatchewan Conservative MP Rob Clarke who was on Parliament Hill in support of March for Justice.
“He has gone through so many copies and just seeing how passionate he is, seeing how he sees the Indian Act being so archaic and outdated,” said Clarke. “What he has done is he raised awareness across Canada and in the communities. He is very passionate about wanting to get rid of the Indian Act and now you have membership out there saying it’s time to get rid of the Indian Act.”
Clarke is behind a private member’s bill to repeal sections of the Indian Act dealing with residential schools, governing wills and a ban on prairie First Nations from freely selling agricultural products. The proposed bill, which was introduced in late spring, would also require the minister of Aboriginal affairs to report yearly on work to replace sections of the Indian Act with modern amendments or legislation.
Clarke, an 18-year member of the RCMP and member of the Muskeg Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan, said his support for Baskatawang had nothing to do with his private member’s bill.
“Everyone knows this isn’t about my private member’s bill today, I am here to support Leo and his cause,” said Clarke.
Baskatawang said he welcomed Clarke’s support even if he didn’t agree with the Conservative MP’s proposed bill.
“The important thing is he’s bringing the discussion on the Indian Act front and centre. But for me, personally, I would take it a step further,” he said. “Any piece of legislation that replaces the Indian Act should be written by Indigenous people. If there is going to be a piece of legislation that is going to be written about our people, it should be written by our people.”
Baskatawang, an Anishinaabe from Lac des Mille Lacs First Nation, has seen his own people lose their land as a result of government action and inaction.
His community had its reserve lands flooded by development in the 1950s, forcing residents to abandon their territory in Ontario’s north-west. Some now live in Thunder Bay, but many are scattered across the country. Lac des Mille Lacs First Nation is still a registered band with a membership list of about 500 members.
Baskatawang joined the U.S. military in his early 20s before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He served two tours in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division from March 2003 to February 2004 and October 2005 to September 2006.
Despite his war experience, Baskatawang said he could not have finished his cross-country walk without the help of his companions and the kindness of strangers along the road offering a bowl of soup and a place to rest in the evenings.
“It wasn’t easy. Every single day there were ups and downs. We were battling fatigue and sore feet,” he said. “The last week of the march was really, really hard, my feet were really torn up. I was able to lean on my team to help me get to the finish life. I couldn’t have done it without them.”