By Laura E. Young
SUDBURY—Brad Firth was one of those athletes: the kind who never have to train and are still the best athlete on the team.
But the Gwich”in First Nation runner, now known as Caribou Legs, says he wasted his talents during the first 20 years of his life.
Firth, 48, is currently running from Vancouver, British Columbia to St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, with a vision as broad and diverse as the country. He is promoting awareness of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) with a goal to make a difference by creating a different Canada.
“We need a new Canada because this Canada is not working. I hope it reinvents itself and takes on [new pride], and people are less apathetic,” stated Firth.
During a stop in Sudbury, Ontario, on August 29 and 30, Firth stated that he would like to see more police partnerships with First Nations, tougher government regulations on violence, more First Nation people attending school, and people getting their children outside, dancing, and finding confidence in a sober life.
Lisa Osawamick, Aboriginal Women Violence Prevention (AWPVC) coordinator with Greater Sudbury Police Services in partnership with the N’Swakamok Friendship Centre, escorted Firth as he passed through Sudbury.
His epic run, visits, and local media work dovetail with Osawamick’s work educating and preparing strategies to deal proactively with the issues of historical and present-day violence against women.
About 30 people, mostly from Greater Sudbury Police Service (GSPS), joined Firth for a five-kilometre run as he left Sudbury to continue on his long journey to St John’s, noted Osawamick,
That run with police is a far cry from Firth’s early encounters with Vancouver city police that set Firth running again – literally.
Born in Inuvik, he was a hailed from an enviable line of athletic genetics that includes his aunts, the legendary Sharon and Shirley Firth that competed in four Winter Olympics in Nordic skiing.
Brad Firth was also blessed with endurance and skills in a variety of sports. Still, he sabotaged his early sporting years, taking advantage of his athleticism, he recalls.
He would train the day before the race and be drunk on team trips. He’d ruin it for the team, he recalled. “It goes down to integrity. I didn’t promote sport at all.”
But running saved his life. “I encourage all the kids to get running,” he said to the N’Swakomak Friendship Centre gathering in Sudbury.
“I realize now what a gift I have. I’m totally running with it. Literally,” added Firth.
Lured by a construction boom in the 90’s, he moved to Vancouver and into its underbelly of crack and cocaine. He was still quick and able to evade police capture. Eventually though, an officer with as much stamina, caught him. And in a case of “imagine what you’d do if you put that running to good use”, he listened to the police officer.
“I was really glad that he caught me. I would have just kept going dangerously, recklessly,” recalled Firth.
He sobered up, kicked his drug habit and began running, slowly, daily, and one step in front of the other until he was racing ultra marathons and his life on the run became the back story.
Now he’s running alone, unescorted along the remote Trans-Canada highway, connected to every town through Facebook and Twitter.
On his cross-country journey, he manages his tired runner’s body, stretching and meditating daily.
“I try to clear my mind around the stress because I don’t want stress injuring parts of my body. Sometimes stress will attach itself, say, to my calf muscles. That’s why I do smudges or different ceremonies around water.”
Word has spread of his “caribou legs” and he is being called upon more to use his running talents in support of other projects.
He has been invited to Attawapiskat First Nation and to the Arctic in January. Last year he ran 3,800 kilometres from Vancouver to deliver a letter to Ottawa and the federal government, calling for more protection of the Yukon’s Peel Watershed.
He is planning a 2017 cross-Canada run for missing children in residential school.
Still, he has a few actual races in his legs.
“I want to go back to Vancouver and get back into racing, even if I can just do that. I do miss running with the pack,” he said.
Brad “Caribou Legs” Firth can also be found on Facebook.