Carol Norwegian knows the Dempster Highway well.
She and her family just completed their Walk of Love — a journey they now make every five years, from their hometown of Tsiigehtchic 125 kilometers to Chief Jim Koe Park in Inuvik. This year they set out Aug. 1 and arrived Aug. 5 with the goal of raising $4,000 for the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) and spreading awareness of the disease throughout the delta.
“We typically do it in five days,” she said. “We made a base camp at Gwich’in Park. What we did was we started off from Tsiigehtchic and walked that day, then at the end of the day marked off where we left off and started off again from there the next day.
“When I wasn’t walking, I was following along in a ghost car.”
This is the fourth time the Norwegians have made the journey for their loved ones. But this year was especially significant for Carol, age 55, as she passed the torch of leading the march against cancer to her daughter, Shanta. To raise funds for the CCS with a walk, at least one person must complete the entire journey. This year, it was Christina Ann Godin and Shanta Ansdell, who will lead the campaign going forward.
Keeping the family tradition alive is important, said Carol, as the Norwegians have had a difficult history with cancer, beginning with their stepfather Claude Sawyer who passed away May 20, 2001. Claude’s passing mobilized the family — and in 2006 Carol and her mother Therese Remy-Sawyer, age 67 at the time, made the first journey from Tsiigehtchic to Inuvik. It would have been an impressive undertaking for anyone, but for Therese who was fighting lung cancer, it was truly a feat.
“When we first did the initial walk, I calculated how long it would take me,” Carol said. “I figured I could commit to doing 25 kilometers a day. At the end of this first walk, I decided I would do this every five years.
“My mom was very happy about that, so I committed to doing it. Unfortunately, she passed away before the second walk.”
Four walks later, the journey is no less important. Therese passed away in 2010. Then Carol’s sister Lily succumbed to the disease on Nov. 4, 2019.
Cancer is the leading cause of death in the Northwest Territories — the GNWT’s website states that between 2001 and 2010 an average of 111 new cases were diagnosed every year and one quarter of all deaths in that period — an average of 45 a year — were caused by cancers. The most frequent causes of death are lung, colorectal, breast, and prostate cancer. They are also the most common cancers seen in the NWT. Norwegian said one family she knew in Tsiigehtchic had lost six people to cancer.
Norwegian said since the family began doing these walks every five years she’s seen perspectives shift throughout the Beaufort Delta. Much of the stubbornness she saw towards getting diagnosed at first has faded and people are taking symptoms much more seriously.
However, awareness is only half the battle. Norwegian added the isolation of northern communities makes accessing a medical opinion about a potentially cancerous symptom very expensive and largely inaccessible to people.
“In Tsiigehtchic, the doctor comes once a month,” she said. “Once a week a nurse will come, depending on what. So it’s not as easy as you are feeling sick, so you get a check up.”
“You don’t always get the same doctor. So being able to talk about cancer, ask questions and talk to your family and get feedback about what needs to be done.”
So far, she’s raised $1,439.10, or 35 percent of her $4,000 goal, with the Gwich’in Tribal Council donating $1,000 and their Yellowknife office pitching in an addition $200 to the CCS and $300 towards gas. Norwegian said she’s asked the CCS to keep her fundraising page open for an extended period of time so that people can pledge retroactively.
If you would like to support Carol and her family, visit https://tinyurl.com/43e8vn4x to donate.