One Alberta man is crossing the country by horseback to help raise awareness of myriad issues facing Indigenous people.
Dean Cunningham is from Gift Lake Metis Settlement in Alberta. Since May, he has been making his way towards Ottawa to bring awareness of Indigenous issues to more people and demand change. Cunningham made his way through the District on Wednesday, August 17, stopping for the night on Couchiching First Nation before departing again the next morning, with three horses and an entourage of family and supporters in tow.
During a break at the Couchiching Multi-Use Facility on Wednesday afternoon, Cunningham said his ride was a direct response to several issues facing Indigenous people in Canada, including Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Children and the recovery of children buried at residential schools.
“The thing that really got me going is the land upset,” Cunningham said.
“That was one reason that got me going, and thinking about all of it, I thought I would also do the awareness ride for all the cultural genocide that’s happening everywhere, Missing and Murdered Indigenous People, we’re all affected, as well as ’60s scoop and residential schools, and Every Child Matters.”
Cunningham, himself a personal victim of land upset, had for several years planned to take one of his horses and ride to Ottawa to seek some justice for land that was taken from him. When 2022 presented him an opportunity, he took it.
“I thought about horses in 2019, to see if I could ride and go talk to somebody that’ll take care of my matter,” he said.
“Last year I was going to leave but that didn’t happen. Now this year, while my body can take it, I’m taking the ride for my grandkid. I see her with her hand out because I lost a hay field. That’s what got me to do the ride, because when they took that, they took food away from my grandkids. That was supposed to be for them when I’m not around, to live on their own and work for themselves.”
To that end, Cunningham left from his home, just over 200 kilometres northeast of Grande Prairie, Alta., on May 14, sights set on Ottawa and someone who could do something. Along the way, he encountered a few difficulties, including a bout of saddle sores on one of his horses that meant he had to stop and rest for an extended period of time to let his companions heal. But bigger than the difficulties he came up against, Cunningham said he’s received support at every stop from people who have learned about him and what he’s riding for.
“People have been giving me cash donations and food and horse feed and a place to lodge,” he said.
“I started out with just me and two horses, and I could only reach about 30 kilometres in a day. After a while, when my buddy came with the truck, I could hit 40 kilometres, but I was still leading a horse.”
Eventually Cunningham was given a horse trailer to use along his journey, and now tries to make up to 60 kilometres in a day’s ride, swapping out horses as necessary and stopping to make sure they get the rest they, and he, need. As he told his story, his horses were tethered to the nearby trailer in the Multi-Use Facility’s parking lot, tearing at bundles of hay and ears of corn brought by supporters. Cunningham said that even with a stop for lunch and in Rainy River First Nations the previous day, he had still ridden a good 35 kilometres.
Scrawled across the horse trailer Cunningham has had with him for a good chunk of the journey so far are names of supporters and well-wishers, as well as those affected by violence or many of the other societal issues Indigenous people face in Canada. Along with the names are the places those people are from, spanning each of the provinces he’s crossed so far and showing the wide range of those who have expressed their solidarity with his cause.
“The guy that handed me the horse trailer asked me to collect names to see how many I can get, so I’m going to do that,” he said.
Cunningham said the main message he would hope to bring with him to those who might otherwise be unaware is that every child matters, noting that he is making the journey to help make their futures brighter. He added that he believes that reconciliation can only start in Canada when Canada and the Church have made significant strides towards making up for their historic transgressions. He pointed at Pope Francis’s recent apology, adding that it just didn’t sit well with him.
“If he was really sorry, he’d bring something else instead of just an apology,” Cunningham said.
“That’s just a band-aid. Why would I forgive him when it’s not right, what they did. To me, I figure if he said sorry, that’s admittance. That’s my opinion. If anything, Reconciliation won’t even start there unless they bring out that law like what they did to the German Nazis for what they did to the Jews. They’re looking for the Nazis that did it. I think they should do the same with whoever did all this. Not everyone, but the ones that did it. Bring the names. Maybe Reconciliation can start there, but you have to give the land back too.”
When Cunningham set off from Couchiching First Nation the next morning, he received an escort from Treaty #3 Police officers and cruisers, and even more support from area residents, as he crossed the Causeway and continued east towards Canada’s capital city.
According to Google Maps, the journey from Gift Lake Metis Settlement to Ottawa is nearly 4,000 km, a 40 hour drive by car. At an average travelling rate of even 50 kilometres per day, it will take Cunningham a total of nearly 80 days to make the journey on horseback, even without a lengthy stop to let his horses heal. While he originally planned to be in Ottawa three months after he left his home, he now says he’ll get there when he gets there.
“I hope I can make it before the snow flies back home,” he said.
“Any time before that.”