Rylee Nepinak had no experience as a cyclist when he decided to bike from Vancouver to Halifax, but he knew he had to do something to raise money and awareness about Indigenous youth suicide.
He was prompted to take on the cross-country trek by the crisis in Tataskewayak Cree Nation in Manitoba, which this summer declared a state of emergency after losing 13 community members to suicide this year, including 11 youth. Four of the deaths have been within the last two months.
“I wanted to act fast because of the pace of suicides that were occurring,” Nepinak said. “I just wanted to do this right to dedicate to them and show them that we care about them. They’re important.”
Nepinak, who is Anishinaabe from Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba, reached Halifax on Monday, marking the end of his trip by jumping in the harbour with some members of Tataskweyak Cree Nation who drove across the country to surprise him at his end point.
About 20 people met Nepinak on the Halifax boardwalk, carrying “Every Child Matters” flags and photos of their loved ones who were victims of suicide.
“They’re representing their brothers and their sister,” said Melanie Spence, whose son Chaiton Spence died in July. “These are their close family members … and there is a suicide epidemic in our community.”
Nepinak started his journey on Aug. 11. Since then he has travelled almost 4,500 kilometres. He tackled much of the ride alone, with just his bike and his thoughts.
“Just thinking about the members who lost their lives from Tataskweyak has really pushed me,” he said.
Nepinak isn’t just doing this for the youth who lost their lives, but also those who remain.
“[I hope] to inspire them to speak up, share their ideas, have their voices listened to and heard.”
So far, Nepinak has raised more than $27,000 with his online fundraiser, and he plans to give the money to the young people in the community.
“They’re going to decide how it’s spent. I’m going to listen to their ideas, I’m going to teach them how to host a youth town hall,” he said. “I’m sure they have many ideas and I can’t wait to hear about them.”
Nepinak hopes to create a permanent youth council in Tataskweyak, and then in other First Nations across the country. He believes the best way to empower youth is to include them in decision-making.
Many members of Tataskweyak say more services are needed in communities across the country.
“Our youth need more first on First Nation communities,” said Spence. “We need resources for the mental illness that our children are facing. They’re hurting, and there’s nothing.”
Though Nepinak hasn’t yet been to Tataskweyak Cree Nation, he has made a huge impact on the community, and he plans to visit regularly in the future.
“What he’s done, no one else would do something like that,” said Spence. “I want support for our children. That’s why I came here to support him. It takes one person to make a change, and that’s what Rylee Nepinak did.”
Nepinak received the blessing of the chief of Tataskweyak and the families of those who died before he began his ride. Chief Doreen Spence was one of the people who travelled to Halifax.
“I have so much gratitude and respect for Riley, for doing this for our community,” Doreen Spence said. “And it’s not just for Tataskweyak, it’s for all the youth across Canada. Everyone that’s been impacted by suicide or may have lost someone.”
Nepinak’s journey represents his passion for working with Indigenous youth.
“When I heard about what was happening to our relatives and to Tataskweyak, I’m not from there, but regardless how far you live, you’re our relative,” he said. “And I think we should take care of each other.”
And people did take care of Nepinak on his journey. He said strangers helped him many times and he witnessed overwhelming kindness and support.
Nepinak said he is inspired by the resilience of his people, and the courage of those around him is what keeps him going. He’s only 25 years old, but he said age isn’t what makes you a leader.
If you are thinking of suicide or know someone who is, help is available nationwide by calling the Canada Suicide Prevention Service toll-free at 1-833-456-4566, 24 hours a day, or texting 45645. (The text service is available from 4 p.m. to midnight Eastern time).
If you feel your mental health or the mental health of a loved one is at risk of an immediate crisis, call 911.
MORE TOP STORIES