Dressed in traditional war paint and holding a hand drum, a G’wich’in First Nation ultra runner who ran across the country last year is now running the length of Vancouver Island, in an effort to raise awareness for missing and murdered aboriginal women (MMAW).
Brad Firth, 46, known as Caribou Legs, completed a six-month journey from Vancouver to St. John’s, Nfld. in late November. His 7,400 km, mostly unsupported run, gave Firth an opportunity to raise awareness and continue conversations on not only MMAW, but also on domestic violence.
He returned to the Island “to make sure it was a cross-Canada tour; I wanted to completely cover Canada,” he explained. He arrived in Campbell River last Thursday evening and left Saturday morning. Firth, who is from Inuvik, NWT, made his way from Tofino to Port Alberni, and continued to Nanaimo. He gave a talk in Vancouver before retuning to Victoria to begin the 14-day journey to Port Hardy. Firth said the sight of him running alongside major roads throughout the country has created mixed reactions.
“To have an aboriginal runner in war paint, being seen as a warrior in regalia in any small community really gets people talking. Some people are really open to it, and start hugging me. Some people frown and get really uncomfortable around the subject of reconciliation and talking about old systematic racism towards aboriginal women and women in general.”
Firth makes a point of initiating conversations wherever his runs take him, and noted not all of his experiences have been positive – he conceded there is still a long way to go with racism in Canada.
“There have been times when people have removed themselves when I sit down. I’ve had some people spit at me; there are a lot of wrong impressions.”
He said last summer he was handcuffed in Alberta – an incident north of Calgary when RCMP stopped him after they received reports of a man with make-up on his face on the highway waving a gun.
The gun, it turned out, was Firth’s hand drum. While he comes from a family of strong athletes – his sisters Sharon and Shirley Firth were among the first aboriginal athletes to represent Canada at the Olympics and were members of the first Canadian women’s cross-country ski team at the Games – running came from a place of necessity, and not at first, of desire.
As a teenager, Firth found himself unemployed in Vancouver. A few years later, he was living in the Downtown Eastside using crack cocaine. He credited police officers who would chase him around the streets of the city with the need to run quickly. Eventually, he was caught, and one officer encouraged him to use his natural running ability for good. He ran his first marathon – the BMO Vancouver Marathon – in 2005.
Five years later, he qualified to run the Boston Marathon with a time of 3:07.
“I dedicate my life to running and I sit at a humble spot. I am so grateful to use my athleticism; running has saved my life.”
For more information and to follow him on social media, search for Caribou Legs on Facebook or #WarriorsAgainstViolence.