When he was nine years old, Theland Kicknosway asked his mother a profoundly difficult question: “What happens to the children of the missing and murdered Indigenous women?”
His mother, Elaine, didn’t have a ready answer, so she reached out to a friend, Bridget Tolley. Hailing from the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg community, near Maniwaki, Que., Tolley is the founder of Families of Sisters in Spirit, a grassroots initiative that supports loved ones of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and transgender and two-spirit people. (The number of missing women is reported to number approximately 1,200 across Canada, though activists estimate the true total could in fact be much higher.)
Tolley explained to Theland that it wasn’t easy for the children left behind, many of whom were taken in by grandparents. “It’s tough to know that people you love are gone,” she said.
That idea bothered Theland so much that he became determined to help—to be, in his own words, “a child looking out for another child.” After some thought, he knew what to do. He would run.
Since 2015, his annual marathon, Theland’s Journey, has raised more than $5,000 for Families of Sisters in Spirit. The group, Tolley says, offers money and supplies to the children’s caretakers and also organizes events, such as a free supper in Ottawa in February 2018, where Indigenous women could pick up clothing, toys and household goods.
Theland’s run, she says, has become a key fundraiser for the organization, which has helped about 400 families so far.
The spring’s 134-kilometre trek, which kicked off on March 29, 2018, travels from Kitigan Zibi to Gatineau Park, just north of Ottawa. Community members, local politicians and police officers have been invited to join Theland, now 14, at various points along the run.
The teen’s chosen root has deep significance. Kitigan Zibi is home to the families of Maisy Odjick and Shannon Alexander, best friends who disappeared in September 2008 on their way to a high-school dance. Law enforcement officials have yet to clarify what happened to them.
Gatineau Park is the place where 27-year-old Kelly Morrisseau, a pregnant mother of three, was found in a pool of blood on the morning of December 10, 2006. She was taken to hospital with multiple stab wounds but died that same day. Her murder has never been solved.
Theland is a Grade 9 student at Merivale High School, in Ottawa’s west end. He trains for his run, which amounts to more than three full marathons in as many days, mostly by playing basketball, his favourite sport. But the challenge remains largely mental, not physical.
“It’s always a tough journey, but we’re doing this for something that has affected many lives,” he says. “I’ve learned that it may seem hard, it may seem tough, but we have to persevere. We have to have that strength to keep moving forward.”
Theland’s father, Vince Kicknosway, is filled with pride for his son. “This is something he came up with out of his own nature,” he says.
Both Vince and Elaine are survivors of the Sixties Scoop, the 1960s to late ’80s practice of taking First Nations children out of their homes and placing them in foster care or up for adoption.
Their son, on the other hand, is a member of the Walpole Island First Nation, in southwestern Ontario, and is an accomplished drummer, singer and hoop dancer. In November 2015, he led Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the new Liberal cabinet into Rideau Hall for their swearing-in ceremony.
Theland was recently named a 2018 Indspire Award recipient for his contribution to Indigenous culture, heritage and spirituality. He is considering a career as a performer or actor—and he has no plans to stop running.
“I want to do something to help bring change,” he says.