OTTAWA, March 25 – Seven young aboriginal men arrived in Ottawa on Monday ending a 1,600-kilometer (994-mile) trek, at times on snowshoes and pulling sleds, to protest the squalid conditions in remote Canadian reserves.
Their journey from the Whapmagoostui Cree community, on the coast of Hudson's Bay, northern Quebec, began in mid-January.
But their numbers swelled as supporters joined them along the way, reaching into the hundreds as they arrived outside parliament in the Canadian capital.
"This is not the end. We started with a walk but our movement will continue," David Kawapit, 18, one of the original seven walkers, told the crowd in his Cree language through an interpreter.
He and his six original companions, aged 17 to 21, were to meet later with Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt to discuss the plight of natives in remote communities.
In December and January, a 44-day hunger strike by a chief of one Canada's 600 tribes became the focal point for the aboriginal rights movement calling for an end to squalid living conditions on reserves.
The campaign exploded into dozens of protests, including highway and railroad blockades, leading to emergency talks between native leaders and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
In the end, Harper agreed to ongoing "high level dialogue" with native leaders. But critics say little has been accomplished since then to address a severe housing and schools shortage on reserves.
In addition to complaints of severe poverty, natives also opposed changes in November to environmental and other laws they say impact their hunting and fishing rights, and allow tribes to lease reserve lands to non-natives.
Although the government insists the move was meant to boost economic development, some fear it will result in a loss of native control of reserve lands and eventually lead to the end of aboriginal communities.