The first step in an 80-day journey across the country began with burning feet.
Jazz Lavallee, who was born in Le Pas and grew up in Winnipeg, began a walk on Sept. 1 from Winnipeg to the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
“The children, when I heard about the 215, my feet started burning. I couldn’t cool them off. So I started focusing on that,” Lavallee explained, referring to the remains of 215 children which were confirmed on the grounds of the Kamloops institution on May 27 of this year.
“It was when my mom started talking about it she said, ‘215 babies, Jazz, 215.’ That’s when I just broke and I was really upset…”
A friend of her family, Virgil Moar, told her to take all the anger she was feeling and put it towards something that would make a difference.
“So I went home and I thought about everything in my life that led up to that very moment; everything just made sense that I had to walk for children and survivors. Show the children of tomorrow that there’s people here that care about their future and show survivors that we hear them and we’ll never stop hearing them.”
Walking is particularly significant in terms of Lavallee’s history. She was born with dislocated hips and spent the first 18 months of her life in a half body cast from her waist to her ankles. Her mother was told she would mostly likely need to use a wheelchair all her life. However, she said, she learned to walk before she crawled and has been going strong since.
“I’ll walk across the world if I have to,” she said of her journey. “I didn’t have a million dollars to give, no fundraising or anything, but I had a million steps.”
Lavallee and the four supporters accompanying her made a short stop in Salmon Arm on Nov. 15, her 76th day putting foot to pavement.
Her mother, her aunties and their family friend Virgil Moar attended a federal Indian day school.
“Like my Mom always said, they were blessed because they got to go home at the end of the day. To me that’s kind of a twisted way, right, because they still saw the abuse, if not they felt the abuse, so everybody’s affected by it. I started walking for my mom, for Virg, for everybody.”
The minute she told Moar about her walk, he told her “you’re not going alone, you’re not going to be another statistic on the road. I’m coming with you.”
She said he has matched her step to step. Vernon Dustyhorn, who joined them in Regina, and Moar set up their tents in from of the door of the motorhome when Lavallee slept inside, and they have walked, one in front, one behind her, on the way. Also accompanying her are Janette Klausen and River Steele, driver of the motorhome.
“She asked to go for a walk, so here we are,” laughed Moar.
Added Lavallee, also laughing: “No one back home is going to want to go for a walk with us.”
She said the journey has been beautiful.
“We’ve met a lot of good people, all ethnicities, so many different people have reached out, told us to keep going, or donated, and the honks and waves.”
Parks Canada and the RCMP helped them along the way, escorting them through tough sections of road and providing them with firewood so they could get warm with a campfire.
Many meaningful things happened along the way, one of them involving how Lavallee gathered children’s moccasins to take with her. She wasn’t getting any response from a request for them, but then she met a man who was making mocassins. He made her a pair and then, when she and her mom asked him where he was from, he said ‘Kamloops.’ His father had spent his whole childhood at the institution.
After that, the little shoes began to pour in.
Lavalee carries a weighty backpack with her, which is filled with about 50 pairs of children’s moccasins. She said the walkers treat the backpack like a baby. It has never sat on the ground, it is carried instead. Each morning the moccasions are included in smudging.
The moccasins have come to her with history. A little girl named Rowan and her mother caught up with the motorhome at 8:30 in the morning one day.
“To deliver me a pair of moccasins that she wore and her mother wore when she was little and a donation in there – so things like that they just keep you going.”
Lavallee, on her sixth pair of walking shoes since she left Winnipeg, said she doesn’t walk for just Indigenous children, but for all children who have suffered. She emphasized there is hope for the future and there always was.
“It’s an honour to do this. It was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. It was the most honourable thing I could think of to do. I thank the survivors and children for allowing me to do this.”
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