“I’ve been waiting for this moment,” said Rylee Nepinak, standing proudly on the Halifax harbour boardwalk on Monday, September 20. Nepinak, 25, had just completed the final leg of a 40-day, 5,700-kilometre bicycle journey from Vancouver, British Columbia to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
“I started in Crown Park, Vancouver, that was August 11,” Nepinak told The Coast. “Some days are longer than others and others are shorter than others, but I think if you average it out it’s about 140 kilometres a day.”
The ride was to draw attention to and raise money for the community of Tataskweyak Cree Nation in Manitoba, which has had 13 suicides in the past year—four of those in the past two months. Most of those who died were youth aged 14 to 19.
Although Nepinak is from Winnipeg himself, when he found out about the ongoing mental health crisis, combined with the fact that Tataskweyak has been under a boil water advisory since 2017, he felt compelled to help.
“This ride is dedicated to them,” he explains. “It’s to show them that no matter how far away you live from each other, we’re all relatives.”
Doreen Spence, the chief of Tataskweyak Cree Nation, flew to Halifax to see Nepinak reach his goal.
“I can’t express my gratitude enough, from the bottom of my heart,” she told The Coast. “Because he took it upon himself to do this, to raise awareness for our community members, for our youth that we lost.”
Along with community elders and family members of those who died, Nepinak and Spence set up a memorial at the Halifax waterfront with photos of the victims, “Every Child Matters” flags and orange t-shirts.
Chief Spence says that the community is working on short- and long-term programs and solutions, but Tataskweyek is lacking recreational space for youth—an issue that was only amplified during the pandemic when the Band Hall was used as COVID-19 isolation space.
“We want to get them involved,” she says. “We're trying to make them know that they matter, seeing that their lives matter. They have to start being involved in the community, and we have to provide resources for them as well.”
Nepinak says it’s important to draw attention to issues that affect not just Tataswkeyak, but many Indigenous communities across the country.
“I felt like if I didn’t do something sooner, then that could’ve been another life,” he says. “I've seen Indigenous youth face similar problems amongst a lot of First Nation communities across Canada, and I just want to be able to do something for them and show them that they can do things like this.”
After arriving at the waterfront, Nepinak jumped off the boardwalk into the harbour, joined by several supporters. Some had been with the cyclist for part or all of his journey, others, like Spence, had flown to meet him in Halifax.
“I’ve met so many great people along the way. I couldn’t have done it without a lot of people’s help and a lot of stranger’s kindness,” said Nepinak. “I've stayed on people's couches. I've slept in the bush. I've stayed in some nice hotels that I was put up in by the kindness of strangers.”
Nepinak wasn’t a cyclist before his ride, and he jokes that he’ll “probably never touch a bike again for the rest of my life.” But in all seriousness, he wants to promote cycling. “It really brings in a sense of camaraderie,” he says. “It’s so amazing for you mentally, physically and community.”
After some rest, Nepinak will visit Tataskweyak to discuss with the local youth what should be done with the $27,000 he raised via GoFundMe.
“I know back home that everyone’s really looking forward to him coming to our community,” chief Spence says. “To thank him in person.”
“We’re already in plans for me to come to their community in person and start learning more stories, start hearing more voices, building relationships and coming up with solutions,” Nepinak says. “I’ve heard an idea of maybe a community pool, that’s an idea that was bounced and we’re going to hear all of them.”