Members of First Nation experiencing suicide crisis welcome youth cycling across Canada

A First Nations youth cycling across the country to raise awareness for a suicide crisis in Manitoba's Tataskewayak Cree Nation was met with hugs from its community members just outside Winnipeg on Wednesday.

Tataskweyak Cree Nation members ride into Winnipeg with Rylee Nepinak

Rylee Nepinak has been cycling across western Canada since he left Vancouver Aug. 11. He was joined Wednesday by a dozen youth from Tataskweyak Cree Nation who rode with him into Winnipeg. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

A First Nations youth cycling across the country to raise awareness for a suicide crisis in Manitoba's Tataskewayak Cree Nation was met with hugs from its community members just outside Winnipeg on Wednesday.

"As soon as I felt embraced by them, nothing else mattered," said Rylee Nepinak.

"So it was a lot of emotions, a lot of positive emotions." 

Nepinak, who is Anishinaabe from Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba, started his cross-country cycling journey on Aug. 11 in Vancouver and has covered close to 1,900 kilometres in two weeks.

Rylee Nepinak was greeted with hugs and tears from many of the people who travelled from Tataskweyak Cree Nation to Winnipeg to greet him. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

On Wednesday morning a dozen Tataskweyak youth joined him as he reached Headingley, Man., just outside of Winnipeg, and cycled with him into the city on Highway 1. 

"Receiving all the support from not only Tataskweyak Cree Nation, but also, you know, home, it's really motivating for me. So I have a lot of momentum going," said Nepinak.

Tataskweyak Cree Nation Chief Doreen Spence said the community, which is over 700 kilometres north of Winnipeg, has had to deal with 14 suicides, 11 of which were youth, and many suicide attempts over the past year and a half.

Rylee Nepinak has been raising funds throughout his journey for the youth of Tataskweyak. He plans on hosting a youth town hall when he's done his journey. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

Nepinak reached out to Spence and members from the community before his trip, asking for the community's blessing to do the bike ride. He said he would like to inspire First Nations youth to get involved in their communities. He co-founded the Winnipeg-based, Indigenous youth-led community group Anishiative.

"There was a point in my life where I felt like my voice wasn't being heard and now it is and it's very empowering," he said.

"And I want them to have that same feeling."

Grateful for the support

Kaitlynn Thibeault from Tataskweyak Cree Nation said that recently life has been "pretty stressful" for many of the youth who live there.

"I just want to say that we need help," she said.

"Like, we desperately need help, and I'm calling to everybody across Canada, across the entire world. Please listen to us. Please."

Kaitlynn Thibeault (centre) and a group of youth from Tataskweyak hold up signs of the names of young people who have died over the past couple of years. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

She said she wants the young people in her community to find healthy ways to cope with their mental health, including talking about their feelings.

"I hope I can see them talking to somebody instead of holding it in," said Thibeault. 

"And I hope that they're strong enough to realize that they need to change themselves, too. If we want to see change, we have to see it within ourselves first."

In terms of mental health support, she would like to see family therapy and more people in her community going back to their traditional ways of living. 

Spence said most of the people who travelled to Winnipeg to greet Nepinak have been personally affected by the losses in the community.

She said she hopes the bike ride and Wednesday's event offers a form of healing for many of the young people who were in attendance.

Tataskweyak Chief Doreen Spence said COVID-19 has brought extra mental health challenges in her First Nation. She would like to see a mental wellness facility built in the community. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

She said leadership has been in meetings with Indigenous Services Canada and Red Cross and that they would like to build a mental wellness facility in the future.

Nepinak plans to make his way by bicycle to Halifax by Sept. 19. 


Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He was an associate producer with CBC Indigenous.