Riding from Saskatoon to Victoria in the middle of winter was difficult for Iliajah Pidskalny, whose Cycle to Stop the Harm tour for mental health, addiction and homelessness awareness rolled into town Thursday night.
Having endured multiple days of below-freezing temperatures and harsh prairie wind chill, which left him with frostbitten toes, he was glad to reach the warmer climes of the south Island this week.
So what kept him going through those tough days? Thinking about people and families affected by overdose, and others who are treated as lesser than, simply for being homeless.
The idea for the ride, which began Jan. 1, emerged from his meeting people living on the street in his home of Saskatoon.
“I just chatted with them and treated them like anybody else,” Pidskalny said. “But I was shocked by how people treated them, even just for how they were dressed.”
Supported during the ride by Mom’s Stop the Harm and the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition – he raised close to $25,000 for their efforts through a now-completed GoFundMe campaign – he expected his ride to be over once he arrived in Vancouver on Jan. 29. But after resting his weary body for a week or so, he found a reservoir of energy and motivation to bring his message to Vancouver Island.
“I had so much hope and excitement from meeting so many people, I decided to keep going and come to the Island,” he said.
The large sign on his bike featuring the tour name piqued people’s interest and led to many conversations along the way.
“One of the things that stood out the most for me was everywhere you went, somebody had a story, whether it was fentanyl poisoning, mental illness – alcoholism came up a lot,” he said. “To me, this is a question of mental health. I put suicide and depression in there, too. And every day I’d meet people who had their own relationship to certain drugs.”
Pidskalny travelled to Nanaimo from the mainland and rode north to Campbell River before heading south again. He planned to meet up with some Island Health outreach workers and mental health advocates while in Victoria.
The bottom line, he said, echoing the mantra of Mom’s Stop the Harm, is Canada needs to rethink its drug policies and the stigmas around mental illness that lead people from all walks of life to use in secret, often unsafely. While the fundraiser is over, he encouraged people to continue the conversation as a way to erase that stigma.
Tenting since last May as a way to get more in touch with the struggles of people less fortunate, Pidskalny plans to settle in the Nanaimo area and try to find work.