Through the ambitious Bicycling North program, Brendan Groat is advocating for increased health in northern communities through the practice of cycling.
Groat, a medical student at the University of Saskatchewan, plans to cycle between six primarily Indigenous northern Saskatchewan communities — Île-à-la-Crosse, Dillion, La Loche, Buffalo Narrows, Beauval and Patuanak. At each stop, Groat will be gifting bike parts and tools to community centres, leading bike days and bicycle repair workshops and fulfilling clinic hours. The project will begin later this year on May 15 and will wrap up on June 30.
Groat is involved in both the Student Wellness Initiative Towards Community Health clinic and the Making the Links Global and Indigenous Health program. He also does work with Mindful Living, an organization that advocates for the mental health benefits of mindfulness meditation.
The idea for Bicycling North came to Groat during his time spent in Île-à-la-Crosse as part of Making the Links. As part of a wider series of health days, Groat helped host a bike day for the community.
“In Île we did different days. The most memorable was the bicycle day. There’s 50 kids lined up with their bikes. All the kids, they ride their bikes everywhere but the tires are bald and flat, the brakes aren’t working, the pedals are busted but they’re still riding them,” Groat said. “It’s pretty geographically isolated up there in regards to getting supplies for repairs.”
Each of the communities are approximately 70 to 100 kilometers apart. Île-à-la-Crosse was included because it serves as the health centre for the region, but the rest were based on distance in relation to each other.
“I wanted to show that covering 100 kilometres a day is fairly easy. Six hours at 18 kilometres an hour is a fairly gentle biking pace,” Groat said.
As part of Bicycling North, Groat will also be fulfilling clinic hours at each stop on his tour. The Making the Links program features three practicums: one at the SWITCH clinic, one in northern Saskatchewan and an international practicum.
Groat chose to develop Bicycling North as the third part of his practicum, rather than travelling internationally.
“It’s great to help those that are in need worldwide but people also need some help pretty close by,” Groat said. “Having been up there and learning about what life is like up there and their health, and then seeing ways to help that, I feel like I’ve got to.”
Bicycling North hopes to focus on not just the improved physical health that comes with practicing cycling, but also the mental health aspects associated with the hobby.
“In speaking with people in the community, it’s something that they really want to support. They understand the physical health improvement but also the mental health in terms of the empowerment that comes with learning new skills,” Groat said. “It’s spiritual health as well. You’re on your bike, you’re in the air, you’re connected to land. That’s an important cultural value.”
In addition to these health benefits, Groat says that cycling also offers benefits to nutritional and social health by providing a method of transportation that allows easier access to food and the ability to explore one’s community.
“It’s not just like you go in and you do something and then you leave. You want it to be sustainable … It’s like that old adage: you give someone a fish, they eat for a day, but you teach someone to fish, and they eat for their whole lifetime,” Groat said.
Groat views the practice of cycling as something that can help northern Indigenous communities reconnect with the lands they inhabit.
“It respects Indigenous perspective in regards to movement across land. My ancestry is Cree and Métis. My granddad always wanted us to be more connected to that. If that’s something I can do, I’ll do it this way.”
Bicycling North is currently seeking funding through a GoFundMe page, and can be found on Facebook as Bicycling North.
Photo: Jeremy Britz / Photo Editor