Sitting in the shade of some trees between Hope and Princeton, B.C., on Thursday, 25-year-old Rylee Nepinak is 230-kilometres into a coast-to-coast bike ride raising funds for youth in Tataskweyak Cree Nation, a northern Manitoba community struggling with the impact of a suicide crisis among its young people.
He’s been on the road for two days; he drove west earlier in the week, pivoting quickly after the completion of another project fuelled by his passion to support and empower Manitoba’s Indigenous youth.
Back home in Winnipeg, Nepinak heads up the North End community volunteer group Anishiative, which leads Indigenous youth in caring for their relatives and community.
The organization has grown and adapted, since its origins in 2019, when Nepinak dreamed up a camp to equip Indigenous youth with land-based traditional teachings, health and well-being tools and survival skills.
"I started to notice that a lot of youth lacked a sense of belonging. They lacked learning their culture and they didn’t have a connection to the land, and mother earth, and I think that’s so important," Nepinak said.
"I wanted to help the youth learn more about themselves, learn more about their culture, how to deal with trauma and how trauma can lie not just in the mind but also the body, and help them foster a connection to the land and to each other."
Two years later, the camp came to fruition. In the first week of August, Nepinak and his brother River led a group of 18 Anishiative volunteers in a three-day experience at Cedar Lake, where youth took part in workshops to strengthen their mind, body, emotions and spirit, and empower them to lead their communities.
Campers built teepees together the first day — where they slept each night — and over the course of the camp they learned traditional games, practised somatic therapy through breathing exercises, built traditional drums and practised basic survival skills, all led by knowledge keepers and facilitators, said Nepinak.
The leadership camp was 16-year-old Kayla Bowman’s first introduction to Anishiative, having been introduced through a school-arranged job placement in the city.
"It actually helped me mentally and all around with finding who I am," Bowman said in a phone interview Thursday. "It was awesome for me, learning my culture and things like that."
Bowman credits much of her growth to the breathing exercises taught by Winnipeg breathwork facilitators Jason and Luna Binkley.
"They said ‘breath is life,’ and taught us how to breathe and connect with yourself and your feelings," said Bowman. "It was really good for everyone in the room, you could feel it."
The workshop followed a conversation on Indigenous history and complex trauma led by Katelynn Pompee.
"I don’t think anyone in the room had experienced anything like that before. I think that was able to help them release a lot of the energy they were feeling up until that point," said Anishiative co-founder Justine James in an interview Thursday.
As Anishiative celebrated its first anniversary this summer, Nepinak took to social media to share how his years-old plan for the leadership camp evolved into the organization he runs now.
When camp funding fell through in 2019, Nepinak instead moved west and pursued an opportunity as a flight attendant — until an unprecedented global pandemic grounded flights, sent him home to Winnipeg, and rekindled his fire to support, encourage and empower Winnipeg’s Indigenous youth.
"When I got back home… the community itself looked different. It was the result of the pandemic. There were a lot more people struggling in the streets, there was more pollution in the neighbourhood, and it just didn’t feel like the North End to me," Nepinak explained.
Nepinak decided to join his sister Kristyn Boubard and James to spend a Sunday handing out food in front of a Salvation Army.
"We got to feed our unsheltered relatives, hear their stories, and we realized very quickly that this would be beneficial for youth to be a part of," said Nepinak. "The community responded very positively to our presence and the youth were very engaged."
From that moment, Nepinak said the Anishiative volunteer core evolved organically; when the group noticed trash was becoming more prominent on the streets they walked, they started a litter patrol group, then they began pulling a wagon with individually wrapped food and snacks to share, shovelled elders walkways in the winter, and helped evacuees from northern forest fires.
"Over a year ago we were just a group of people who came together who wanted to share a meal with our relatives who live on the streets," said James. "Now I couldn’t even tell you how many people are involved — I think it’s just flourished since then."
Bowman, who plans to stay connected with Anishiative in the months to come, said she wants to encourage youth across Manitoba to be involved with the organization. Her time at the camp was uplifting and encouraged her to chase her dreams as she finishes high school this year.
"Anishiative really helps with finding your voice and knowing that you are accepted in the world. No matter what — you can do what you want to do," Bowman said.
As the group continues to grow, Nepinak said he envisions broadening the group’s scope, building connections from northern Indigenous communities to the inner-city youth in Winnipeg. He remains committed to his community’s young people, giving them the tools to define their futures for themselves.
"We want to work with youth across Manitoba, we want to build leaders, we want to reconnect them with their culture, we want to assist our relatives struggling in the streets, and continue empowering each other," he explained.
"Responding to the community’s needs is our focus, and the community’s needs change. That’s our vision: be adaptable to the community’s needs and respond."
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.