Stanley Vollant says a feeling of dread swept over him that day in October 2010 when he looked down from a plane and saw the long road below that he was soon to start walking on. “It was more like a panic attack,” recalls the Innu surgeon and aboriginal program coordinator for the faculty of medicine at Université de Montréal. “I thought to myself, ‘What am I doing? I must need psychiatric help.’”
It was the start of a planned 4,000-km, five-year pilgrimage that Dr. Vollant dreamed of – literally – to inspire Native youth. His fears soon vanished, however, when he saw the excitement generated by his visits to a dozen Innu communities during that initial month-long, 620-km walk along Quebec’s rugged North Shore.
Now 18 months and four legs into the one-man mission he dubbed Innu Meshkenu (or Innu Path), Dr. Vollant is generating the excitement of an aboriginal Terry Fox as he continues to walk, snowshoe and paddle his way across First Nation ancestral lands throughout Quebec.
Invited to address primary and secondary school students at almost every stop, he promotes the importance of regular exercise and proper nutrition and talks up the many career opportunities that exist for Native youth in almost every field, particularly health care.
“There are more than one million First Nations’ people in Canada but only a handful of First Nation doctors, nurses, pharmacists and physiotherapists,” says Dr. Vollant. “I tell the kids, ‘Stay in school and get an education because our people need you.’”
His most recent outing was a 13-day adventure that began Feb. 24, when he and 40 Attikameks of all ages walked a 300-km trail on snowshoes through forests and over frozen lakes and rivers – hauling 1.8 tons of wild game and other food and supplies with them on traditional toboggans.
“The excitement and energy just keeps growing,” says Dr. Vollant, who plans at least two more walks in 2012. “It’s already turned into something much bigger than I first imagined.”
Those first imaginings were in 2005, when Dr. Vollant woke in a cold sweat late one night during a personal pilgrimage to Compostela, Spain. “I had a vision of walking on our lands towards Ottawa, talking to elders and telling youth to be brave, to look to the future,” he says. “It was a big vision, but I like big visions.”
Back in Canada, he solicited donations and technical support from a handful of Native and non-Native sponsors. He also developed an itinerary and a website on which visitors can follow his every step thanks to a GPS he carries with him.
Though hampered by foot problems, he says it’s a small price to pay for giving hope to his First Nation brethren. “My pain is nothing compared to the conditions in which my people live,” says Dr. Vollant. “I tell the kids not to despair, to look ahead and think about their future.”