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Running from coast to coast for Indigenous women

Brad Firth, known as Caribou Legs, joined dozens of Kahnawa’kehró:non in a peaceful march on Tuesday evening to show solidarity to those in Standing Rock. (Jessica Deer, The Eastern Door)

Brad Firth is helping to raise awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women by doing what he knows best: running.

The Gwich’in ultra-marathon runner, who goes by the name ‘Caribou Legs,’ arrived in Montreal last Friday as he nears the end of his longest distance run.

“It’s to raise the conscious level of Canadians,” said Firth. “After my sister passed away, I wanted to raise awareness by honouring her.”

He started his cross-country journey on Mother’s Day in Vancouver and hopes to reach St. John’s, Newfoundland by November.

Along the way, he’s been sharing his message of health and wellness with youth.

“The message I give to students – it’s all about life skills, about being aware and the importance of running attached to that,” said Firth.

“For example, don’t do anything permanently stupid just because you’re temporarily upset. I always try to encourage them with these positive affirmations, but I tell them what I’ve done to improve my inner identity.”

During his visit in Montreal, Firth spoke with Indigenous students at John Abbott College, Dawson College and Concordia University.

“He was quite the storyteller and I was enraptured by his journey across the country. He wasn’t afraid to approach people on the metro who were staring at him and engaged them in conversation about himself, his drum, the medicine wheel, and who he was. It was interesting to watch him do his thing,” said Concordia student Chantal Henderson.

Life wasn’t always easy for Firth.

While the 46-year-old grew up running, playing hockey, and cross-country skiing competitively, he ended up struggling with addiction for 20 years.

“I used my running to run away from police. Then, one of those police officers caught me in 1999 and told me to start running with this group of runners called Run for Change,” said Firth.

He did, and then went on to run with the elite Vancouver Falcons Athletic Club twice a week.

“All the runners in the club are top-ranked runners in Canada. I went from smoking crack to running every day, competitively,” said Firth.

When he wanted to take on more challenging runs, he turned to ultra marathons (anything longer than a standard 42 km marathon, usually around 100-150 km).

Although this is the fifth time Firth has trekked across a large part of Canada, at nearly 6,000 KM, it’s the furthest to date.

The journey has also been emotionally and physically challenging.

“Emotionally it’s draining because I get all kinds of people calling me asking for time to listen to their story,” he said.

Running alone without a support vehicle, he said, comes with its own tolls on his body.

“Sometimes I don’t have food with me, I don’t have water with me, so I have to endure the pain and aches. Sometimes I have to sleep outside in the elements; sometimes I have to inhale wind – heat, the mugging conditions. So I’m always suffering in some way,” said Firth.

He’s also experienced several run-ins with police, often drawing their attention as a result of running dressed in full regalia. Earlier in the summer, he was stopped about 100 kilometres north of Calgary when Alberta RCMP stopped him after receiving reports “that there was a crazy Indian running the highway waving a gun.”

“It was a first. I was kind of astonished, a bit,” said Firth.

After leaving Montreal, he spent Monday in Ottawa running with municipal police and the RCMP. He returned to Montreal on Tuesday and participated in Kahnawake’s solidarity march for Standing Rock (see story on page 13).

It only took half an hour for Firth to be stopped by the Surete du Quebec (SQ) while he was on his way to Quebec City Wednesday afternoon.

“They gave me a warning. The next time if I run on the expressway, I will be getting cited and if I continue running after the citation, they will take me jail,” he said in a video he posted to his Facebook page.

“They were kind, they were respectful, they treated me with dignity, they didn’t search me – they were a good bunch of guys, so I appreciated that, so I just have to uphold their traffic laws and comply and I’m going to run (along) the St. Lawrence Seaway.”

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Jessica Deer was a staff reporter from 2015-2018 who started out in 2008 as a summer student.