Every morning when he wakes up, Brad Firth applies thick swatches of red, black, and white paint to his face.
As a long distance runner raising awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous women by running from Vancouver to St. John's, Newfoundland, the man who calls himself Caribou Legs hopes the paint will bring added attention to his cause.
Unfortunately not all the attention he has received has been positive. While running just outside of Montreal this week, Firth told VICE he had two run-ins with officers who tried to intimidate and racially profile him.
The first incident occurred at the Montreal airport where Firth stopped to buy a sandwich for lunch. The 46-year-old Gwich'in First Nation man explained that as soon as he walked in the doors several airport security officers started following him around. After he finished eating he went to the bathroom and an officer followed him in, according to Firth. After tailing him for a while the officers approached him.
"They asked me 'What's going on. Why are you here this is private property?' I said 'I'm running across Canada, I just stopped in to get something to eat,'" he explained. "Then they asked me to leave, they said 'you have no business here.' I said 'I'm buying food and I can do whatever I want, I'm not hurting anybody.' They were saying, 'No you have to leave.'"
The officers then asked Firth to follow them downstairs. Believing they had no cause to detain him, Firth said he ignored them and tried to leave the airport at which point they tried to block the exit. When Firth tried to get in a cab to get back onto the highway, the officers tried unsuccessfully to order the cab not to leave.
"They were definitely trying to intimidate me with their body language and using their hands to guide me into a different part of the airport," he said.
According to Firth, the way he was treated is indicative of a larger trend toward visible minorities in Canada. "There's so much of that kind of behaviour around minorities. Airport security is profiling—anyone that is brown is considered a threat," he said.
A media relations spokesperson for the airport, who refused to identify herself, said the airport could not comment on security matters.
Under an hour after getting back on the road, Firth was pulled over by an officer from Quebec's provincial police force (Sûreté du Québec).
In a video of the interaction posted on Facebook, Firth can be heard asking the officer how he's doing, to which he responds "better than you."
The officer then tells Firth it's illegal to run on the 20 Expressway and asks for ID. A minute into the video, the officer reaches for the phone and tells him to stop filming. Eventually another officer showed up and smoothed things out, Firth said.
"The [first] cop came up just blazing. He did not respect or have mindfulness around dignity, he was full on inconsiderate and really disturbing," he said. "Thankfully his buddy showed up and calmed him down."
In the end Firth was allowed to resume his journey on the same side road that Terry Fox had to use when he ran to raise awareness for cancer.
A media relations representative for the National Police of Quebec said they were not aware of the incident. A follow-up call to the local detachment's media relations office was not returned by press time.
Originally from Inuvik in the Beaufort Delta, Firth spent 20 years living on the streets of Vancouver, addicted to crack cocaine and alcohol. It wasn't until just over a decade ago that he began to wean himself off of drugs and booze by running.
Considering the amount of time he spent on the streets of Vancouver, Firth has had lots of interactions with police over the years and he has developed a thick skin in the process. He said he has been pulled over about ten times by officers in the 5,000 kilometres he's covered so far on this run. Halfway through his journey the RCMP set up a special liaison for Firth in order to help inform authorities of his mission.
"I haven't spoke to the officer in a couple of weeks, but I guess Quebec does their own thing," he said.
While his efforts to raise awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous women has received lots of positive attention, Firth said he has encountered his fair share of people that are closed-minded or just outright racist. Firth attributed their attitude to what he calls the "old boy's club" mentality.
"People want to be friends with you but they don't want to be embarrassed by their friends for being friends with me," he said. "There's a lot of fear because they protect each other. I kind of pity them really. I see where they're at and it's sad."
Rather than getting upset when he encounters people who try and put him down, Firth said the only way to respond to people like that is through compassion.
"Not everyone is going to take your suggestions or your message and that's ok. I'm not Jesus," he sad. "We're all in different journeys and we all have a past and you really have to think about that when it comes to that person who's trying to control you or ridicule you."
Despite his negative encounters, Firth explained that he is ultimately focused on spreading his message about stopping violence against women, especially in aboriginal communities.
Firth plans to be in St. John's by the end of November.
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