Zemanek: Where’s the fanfare for Caribou Legs?

Zemanek: Where’s the fanfare for Caribou Legs?

Depending on what news story you read, the Hwy 2 stop version included “there was a crazy Indian running along the highway waving agun. Or, “a man with war-paint and a gun running on the highway.”

Inuvik’s Brad Firth, also known “Caribou Legs”, is a hero, running across Canada to draw attention to Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women. He’s not a “crazy Indian running along the highway waving a gun,” as once reported to police.

If anything, the 46-year-old member of the Gwich’in First Nation in Northern Canada is a remarkable person running with passion. It’s his plea that we as Canadians should start paying attention to what’s happening with our Indigenous brothers and sisters.

Unlike other high-profile, long-distance runners crossing Canada in the past for a cause, Firth does not have a pilot vehicle following his every stride. Nor are there thousands of people cheering him on in support as he pounds the pavement towards the East Coast. And he most certainly does not have police escorts like Terry Fox, Rick Hansen or Steve Fonyo parting the traffic to make way for a hero.

It’s been the opposite for Firth. For the most part his only encounter with the law is being stopped and questioned by authorities. Such was the case in late June on Hwy 2 south of Red Deer when three RCMP cruisers — yes, three — were dispatched after the Mounties received a call about a person “with make-up on their face and looked like he had a gun.”

Depending on what news story you read, the Hwy 2 stop version included “there was a crazy Indian running along the highway waving a gun. Or, “a man with war-paint and a gun running on the highway.”

Authorities claim it’s not unusual to stop a runner along certain highways where the traffic volume is high. But three police cars for one runner? Isn’t that overdoing it a bit? Was it because Firth is aboriginal and Hwy 2 motorists found it odd he was jogging on the shoulder?

The only thing he’s armed with is a symbolic hand drum, a camera to record his adventures — including filming police interviews — and he wears traditional Gwich’in garb and paints his face according to tradition.

Firth’s most recent encounter with authorities was in Quebec last week. And it was not pleasant. He was 10 km outside of Montreal when a member with that provincial police force became aggressive after stopping the marathoner. It was all recorded on Firth’s camera — sort of. The video shows the officer asking the runner a series of questions, and after a brief interaction, the cop blocked the lens. Then the video cuts out.

“He actually threw it to the ground after he took possession of it,” Firth told CBC. “Thankfully that is when the other officer showed up, and that police officer took control of the situation, because he saw how his partner was being way too aggressive in handling that situation.” Anybody who has an inkling of knowledge about our Criminal Justice System would conclude: “Hey, that cop had no right doing that.” The alleged behaviour on the part of the officer could give rise to criminal charges of theft and mischief damaging private property.

Firth says he’s filmed interactions with five other police on the side of highways, all respecting his space. But, according to CBC, he’s also encountered police who “have there own ideas about law enforcement, they believe that they’re above the law.”

But they are not. Police have no right to stop a person from filming or taking pictures unless that person is getting in the way of an investigation.

While in Alberta, Firth was also stopped by police in Edmonton for jaywalking, and in Calgary for an unpaid C-Train ticket. Last year when he ran from Vancouver to Ottawa to help raise funds and plead with politicians to protect Yukon’s Peel Watershed, he was stopped several times by authorities in Ontario.

Hopefully the fact Caribou Legs is native has nothing to do with his stops by police. But evidence points otherwise. And shame on us.

For 20 years Firth battled drug abuse in the seediest parts of Vancouver until, ironically, it was a cop that put him on the straight and narrow because of his running abilities. “I used to get chased by the Vancouver city police when I was a homeless drug addict and it was put to me by one of the police officers, ‘you have a gift.’” He joined an athletic club and soon became one of the top marathon runners in Vancouver. And his family nicknamed him Caribou Legs.

Now eight years sober, Caribou Legs is a hero for a just cause. And he doesn’t mind running on his own with little fanfare because he’s doing it for the plight of his impoverished people, and his sister killed last year in a domestic violence incident.

Rick Zemanek is a former Advocate editor.