Even as Wemindji began work on its second sports arena, some Eastmain Crees began a 710-kilometre walk to raise money for their first one. Eastmain is looking to get a community complex complete with arena, stage, youth centre and an area where Elders can gather and tell stories. After years of government stalling Eastmain decided to take the bull by the horns with the walkathon.

The group of walkers weren’t the regular sort of people that you’d expect on a walkathon of this length. Dennis Cheezo, one of the walkers, ended up on antibiotics and had to take a two-day break from walking on the advice of doctors. His blisters and inability to walk ended him up in a Matagami hospital where he was informed that with his diabetes it was quite likely he would lose use of his feet if he had continued without rest.

“Not everyone did the full 710 km. Some did 50 km a day,” admitted Cheezo, citing lack of sunlight, blisters, weather and pregnancy.

That’s right, pregnancy. Cheezo’s girlfriend, Christine Moses, was five months pregnant when she started the 710-km walk. Cheezo remembers that she averaged 20 to 25 km a day and took a day off to rest at least once. “She was having a baby. We didn’t want her overdoing it. We gave her a rest sometimes,” said Cheezo.

Along for the walk was the Chief of Eastmain and his wife. Chief Kenneth Gilpin told The Nation before the walk that he was hoping to embarrass the governments into action. You have to wonder at the strength of a community’s desire or need for a project when you see its leader subject himself and family to a gruelling walk like this. How many mayors or Chiefs have you heard of doing this type of action? You’ve heard of them joining in the march or a token walk but taking 10 days off with virtually no contact with the office.

When the walk was over, tears were on the faces of the walkers. They had traveled from Val d’Or to Eastmain. “There were a lot of mixed feelings when we arrived,” said Dennis Cheezo. “At first I wasn’t really that proud of myself having those blisters and the problems with the doctor and walking. I felt bad at that time but when I got here (Eastmain) knowing I’m almost 40 years old, I’m not young anymore, plus with my diabetes, I feel that I accomplished something. I went to my limit for this walkathon, ! guess. I don’t think I could do it better,” said Cheezo.

“I feel good helping out the arena project this way. I used to work on the project about eight years ago with Romeo Saganash (former Deputy Grand Chief). It burned me out. Well, not only that, but losing my mom, a friend, there were a lot of things happening. So when this walk came up I wanted to help out in a way that I can. I feel happy about what I did.”

In total, six people from Eastmain took the walk, Chief Kenneth Gilpin and his wife, Sally, Dennis Cheezo and Christine Moses, as well as two youth, Renata Wesley and Derek Mayappo. Two Chisasibi residents also walked to help out Eastmain. One was Daisy Ratt, who has two grandchildren in Eastmain. She was joined by Nellie Rabbitskin, who recently started walking and felt that it would be good to show inter-community and inter-Cree support.

To date the walkathon has raised $32,473. The Board of Compensation is arranging for bridge financing in the tune of $1 million. This will have to be repaid by Eastmain when they get the federal government’s and province’s funding dollars for the project. Eastmain has received $250,000 from the BOC to date. They are campaigning to get another $4 million from the feds and Quebec. Canada and Quebec have an obligation to help Eastmain with the arena, but have been stalling for years. Eastmain is planning to raise the last million on their own.