After his father introduced him, Lyle Fox stood up.
His left foot still bandaged, he carried his 6-foot 5-inch and 225-pound frame across the stage to the podium, where he laid out his speaking notes.
He looked down and remained silent. The audience, who had gathered at the gymnasium at the Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School (DFC) to hear him after he began walking from Sioux Lookout to Thunder Bay, could only watch as the young man pursed his lips, took two deep breaths, and pursed his lips again. Still he did not speak.
Then his father, Charles, went and stood beside his 27-year-old son. His mom, Linda, soon followed, then Evan, his eight-year-old son.
All stood together – Charles’s hand on his son’s shoulder – and after a couple more deep breaths, Lyle looked up.
“My name is Lyle Fox,” he said. “And I’m from Bearskin Lake First Nation.”
The scene was a microcosm of the journey Lyle began 10 days ago – where a young man faced a challenging task, and a family that came to his side when he needed them most.
On Aug. 22, Lyle took his first steps at Pelican Falls in Sioux Lookout to begin his walk to DFC in Thunder Bay. His goal: to raise awareness of prescription drug abuse that has plagued First Nations people in the city and northern communities. He called it the Penasi Walk Against Prescription Drug Abuse.
Lyle had planned to walk more than 400 kilometres on his own using his own two feet. But after three days, those feet began to wear. His daily goal was 40 kilometres, but he failed to reach it. Walking with a sore hip, swollen ankle and blistered feet, he averaged 24 kilometres.
After walking 27 kilometres on the third day – 72 of the 400 kilometres – Lyle was taken to a hospital in Dryden, where he was told he should stay off his feet for at least two weeks.
“This instruction felt devastating,” Lyle told the crowd. “I felt failure, because I like to stick to my word. I said I would walk 400 kilometres.”
When he tried walking the next day, he only made it a kilometre before he had to be taken to the hospital again because of an infection. This time, he was given an IV and antibiotics and he was told he would need to return each day for the same treatment and to reapply the bandages on his left foot.
It was a huge setback for Lyle, who had insisted on walking every inch of the walk.
“I know there was a time where he wanted to give up,” Linda, his mother, said.
But Lyle continued to receive a lot of encouragement and support from family and friends.
“That’s what kept him going,” she said.
On that third day, his family came to his aid. They said they would walk for him when he couldn’t.
“With my personal injury and inability to walk, I had to swallow my pride,” Lyle told the audience. “I had to ask others to help. I reached out to my family and others for that help.”
In a relay style, Lyle would walk on his own using crutches and family members would walk for him while he rested or was taken to the hospital for treatment.
By Aug. 31, Lyle and the walkers were near Kakabeka Falls, just west of Thunder Bay. Since Lyle stopped walking on his own, the walkers had averaged 51 kilometres a day. After starting the first kilometre or so, Lyle rested.
“I’m feeling good,” he said of his health as he approached the city.
The rawness of his foot was gone and he was able to put pressure on it. He no longer needed to go to the hospital for treatment or bandage changes. However, he still needed crutches.
“The whole walk is not how I imagined it,” Lyle said. “I never pictured it the way it turned out. It’s not a bad thing. It’s really positive seeing people come together.”
Up ahead, his cousin Corinne carried the eagle feather – the relay stick, so-to-speak, of the walk.
Lyle was given the feather on a stick made of oak by Elder and supporter Tom Chisel. However, on that third day when his hip, ankle and feet took its toll, his sister found a lighter stick in a ditch that he could use as a crutch. It helped him walk the last eight kilometre of the day. It was covered in dirt and mud then, but as Corinne ran ahead, it was now clean and had the feather tied to it.
“Everyone who walked held the stick,” Lyle said.
Corinne continued to run until she reached an intersection where family and supporters were waiting. Representatives from various regional and community Aboriginal organizations were on hand to help with the walk. Laughter and chatter was heard amongst the group as tobacco was handed to passersby or supporters so that they may make an offering and prayer to the road for their safety.
After Corinne passed on the feather, she said she took part to help her cousin and family in the cause.
“It’s been good,” she said of her experience. “It’s been a team effort doing the run and we’ve had nice weather.”
Among the crowd was a proud father in Charles. He said the experience has been “very inspirational.”
“It’s been satisfying spiritually for everyone involved,” he said.
He said drivers would stop along the highway and donate, and they received many emails and text messages offering support and encouragement.
“When you initiate something like this, the spirit of the issue takes over.”
When the walkers left Kakabeka Falls, they took a detour through Oliver Road instead of Highway 11/17. It was a last minute change of route, Lyle said, because he wanted to visit the grave of his brother.
Penasi means Thunderbird, the spirit name of Darryl Fox, who passed away from cancer almost nine years ago. Lyle initiated the walk to commemorate his spirit, his strength and his memory.
As Lyle approached the grave, he said it was “very emotional.” They had a small ceremony, where they prayed, sang a song and offered tobacco. After 30 minutes, they continued the walk.
On Sept. 1, Lyle – along with family, friends, supporters, DFC students and members of the general public – walked the final three kilometres from Canadian Tire on Arthur St. to DFC.
While he was expecting to speak with DFC students in the school’s gymnasium, Lyle also found himself speaking before leaders, politicians, elders, media and public members.
Jonathon Kakegamic, principal of DFC, said he was appreciative of Lyle’s initiative.
“Before we can begin to address our issues, we need to acknowledge that there is a problem,” he said. “So I’m very grateful for Lyle, who’s a former grad.”
In the gymnasium, a 2002-03 boys’ volleyball championship banner is pinned to the wall. The first name listed: Lyle Fox. He captained his team to the championship that year.
“So he did always have leadership skills,” Kakegamic, who was a teacher at the time, said.
Leaders and Elders who spoke at the school also commended Lyle for his walk and the leadership he demonstrated. But Lyle was quick to acknowledge the support he received: the drivers who transported people and supplies, the cooks who ensured the group was fed, Elders for providing spiritual guidance, the walkers that walked on his behalf, and the family that supported him from the beginning.
For Lyle, the Penasi Walk Against Prescription Drug Abuse offered an important life lesson. He told the students that stubbornness dictated that he walk the entire way on his own, but “our Creator has his or her own way of teaching us lessons – lessons in humility.”
“I want to share this lesson with you: that it’s OK in your time of need to reach out and ask for help,” Lyle said. “Do not let your pride, stubbornness or shame get in the way of reaching out. This will enable you to reach your full potential as a student, as a First Nations person, as a teenager, as a human being.”
At the end of his address, Lyle announced that another walk will take place next year.
“I want you all to join and maybe take a few steps,” he said. “What matters is we take those steps together.”
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