Healing from the land: Whapmagoostui’s John Clarence Kawapit’s journey of grief and re-birth

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About 86 kilometres outside of Inukjuak, John Clarence Kawapit hit the distress signal. He wasn’t in immediate danger, but he was close. His team of three people, walking as John’s Healing Journey from Whapmagoostui to Salluit, was running out of food and fuel for their Coleman stove.

“I didn’t want anybody to die from starvation,” said Kawapit. “It was getting cold.”

That was back in early March. When he finally talked to the Nation, Kawapit was much more comfortable, having just enjoyed a feast of sandwiches, soup, ptarmigan and bannock in Puvirnituq, more than 500 kms north of Whapmagoostui. Things were looking up.

Of course, if things had been looking up all along, there’d be no need for a journey, but in December Kawapit’s life was in terrible shape. A survivor of sexual assault, Kawapit had been drinking for years. He was homeless, and his fiancée had left him. That was when he decided to kill himself.

“I talked to someone in my community about what I was about to do, and he called the clinic,” Kawapit said. “The doctors sent me to the hospital in Chisasibi. That’s where I started to think about my life and what should I do. Should I end my life like that? Or not.”

23-11 John's Healing Journey - Photo Credit Julia Kumarluk copy

On the road to healing, photo: Julia Kumarluk

He wasn’t alone in the descent. His brother Isaac Kawapit a.k.a. “The White Wizard” had died of addiction in 2013 only months after guiding and guarding the Nishiyuu Walkers from Whapmagoostui to Parliament Hill, becoming an iconic figure in the process. His elder sister, Kawapit said, has been hospitalized for alcoholism for some time.

“I don’t think she’s ever going to come out of there,” he said. “She burned her brain up from alcohol.”

That was the direction Kawapit was going as well, unwilling to face the reality of his downward spiral, drinking heavily and sleeping in shacks and on friends’ couches. In the hospital, he began to think about making this walk in order to heal himself, and over the month and a half that followed, he gradually prepared. But he was still living the same hard life that had created the need for healing.

“It was Saturday when I started walking,” said Kawapit. “That night before, Friday night, I was drunk as usual at my cousin’s place. I woke up in the morning, five o’clock. I wasn’t ready – I hadn’t packed anything. I started to think, ‘I’m just going.’ I had no choice. I needed this life, I needed this healing badly.”

He did his best to pack over four or five hours, gathering together his blankets, clothes and food donated by locals to support him on his journey. However, he didn’t even have a gun. He figured he’d work that out on the land.

Asked how he planned to eat without a gun, Kawapit laughed. “Everybody asked me that!” Sure enough, friends eventually gave him a .22 rifle and a 12-gauge shotgun. But that came later – the first thing was walking.

“When I was walking for the first few days,” he remembered, “I was really in bad shape. The alcohol was still in my system. I was so weak – I would take 20 steps, then I’d rest for a minute, and keep going. That’s how bad it was in the beginning. But after a few days I was getting better and better.”

By the time Kawapit had reached the next community north, walking was becoming easier. In the following weeks he discovered he’d lost 30 pounds and was regaining his strength.

“My body feels like it’s 20 years old!” he said.

Two people have joined him: his young friend Jimmy Tooktoo and Alice Nurlik, the fiancée who broke up with him. While the weather is thawing out in Eeyou Istchee, Kawapit said, “It’s still way too cold up here. The Inuit told me it would get colder the more I go north.”

23-11 John's Healing Journey - John's dog Amaruk which means wolf - photo credit Julia Kumarluk copy

John’s faithful companion Amaruk, photo: Julia Kumarluk

Describing their days, Kawapit makes no attempt to sugarcoat his descriptions.

“Alice heard about my journey, and she wanted to follow,” he said. “But during our journey – it’s complicated. We’re trying to find a way to deal with it, trying to get over our anger and our jealousy. We’re working on it together. My buddy Jimmy is always walking behind us. I think he’s giving me time to talk to Alice.”

Throughout the journey, they encountered problems, big and small. The day before he talked to the Nation, the three had travelled a bit by dogsled.

“My fiancée had to go toilet, so she jumped off the sled while the dogs were still running,” said Kawapit. “She couldn’t catch up with the dogs! The helpers didn’t return to us again. After two or three kilometres, I had to jump off the sled too, and I walked back. We started walking again – she was okay, but I was kind of pissed off at her, because the dogs ran away from us. Luckily after eight kilometres of walking, some hunter spotted us, and he drove us where the dogs were. That’s how we made it here. Something like that happens almost every day – we have some difficulties. But we’re not giving up, buddy. We’re going on no matter what.”

The underlying purpose of the journey is a lot more than finding a change of scenery. Kawapit underlined that from the beginning, his goal has been to deal with grief and face the pain that he endured in his younger days when he was abused.

“I had a big scar in my heart,” he said. “I couldn’t tell anybody, and I couldn’t share with anyone. That’s the reason I started walking – to find the answers, and to try to find myself, who I am, in the land. The land helps a lot. And it helps a lot that I’m starting to get closer to our Creator, to get to know him better.”

Kawapit knows only too well how quickly healing can disappear if it’s not protected and nurtured. He has his brother’s example – and no intention of ending up the same way.

“I’ve worked on making my healing permanent,” he said. “I’ve tried to focus on what should I do when I get home after this journey. I have a plan for how to keep myself occupied when I get home, and not to fall off the wagon again. I’m going to keep myself busy, go into the bush, help Elders.”

Kawapit is an artist who carves “anything that’s carvable” – wood, bones, soapstone and rocks. Once he’s back in Whapmagoostui, he wants to focus on making art. As well, he plans to look into a series of recovery programs for survivors of child sexual abuse.

“I’m not giving up myself, buddy,” he said. “I’m trying to go on.”

23-11 John's healing journeyw2 - Whapmagoostui Saying goodbye photo credit Saige Mukash copy

Arriving in one of the communities in Nunavik, photo: Julia Kumarluk

Kawapit, Tooktoo and Nurlik are no longer a trio – they’ve received interest from numerous people who want to join their journey. By March 19, when they reached Akulivik, John’s son Anthony Kawapit was walking with them, along with Luuku Qullialuk and Aisa Sivuarapik. The plan now is to walk to Salluit and break for the season, then begin again next winter and continue all the across Ungava Bay to the mouth of the George River. If all goes according to plan and they pick up the second half of the journey next winter, they can expect many more people.

For the time being, Kawapit and other members of the Healing Journey are moving forward, as he has been since the morning he packed his things and left Whapmagoostui 20 steps at a time. For those cheering for him all across Eeyou Istchee, his message was simple.

“Don’t forget to pray for me when you pray,” he said. “Okay, buddy?”

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