Though diabetes was virtually unheard of in Northern communities 50 years ago, today the disease is at epidemic proportions. One person who studies this phenomenon is Dr. Stanley Vollant, who heads up the Aboriginal Health program at the University of Ottawa and is an aboriginal health advocate. He says the rate of diabetes is much higher among aboriginal peoples than the rest of the Quebec population.
But the problem isn’t limited to Quebec Natives. “Diabetes is very frequent among all North American Indians,” says Vollant. “It’s not just the Cree, it’s the Inuit, the Hopi, the Pima, the Algonquins, the Iroquois, people from the West Coast; so it is quite frequent.”
The short history of aboriginal diabetes may have more to do with the average life expectancy at the time and the age of diabetes onset. A century ago, he notes, the average life expectancy of a Native person was about 35 to 40 years – exactly the same age the diabetes onset normally occurs.
As well at that time, Native people were less sedentary, were nomadic and had to work very hard to get food, find shelter and take care of essentials.
“They had a different diet than today; now the people are very sedentary, they don’t do too much exercise and they are eating the North American diet,” Vollant observes sadly. “They are eating a lot of fast food, a lot of carbohydrates, sugar and lipids, and it is artificial sugars and lipids so it’s probably not good for our metabolisms.”
With the rates climbing amongst the Cree people a major crisis is looming. There is already a rate of about 15 per cent of diabetes among the population that is 15 and over.
“Half of the aboriginal population is under 18 years old and the average age is about 12 years old. So knowing that the age of appearance of diabetes is around 35, you just figure out that in about 15 years we are going to have a huge epidemic of diabetes.”
According to Vollant, up to 70 per cent of the Aboriginal youth are considered to be overweight or obese and this is where the major problem is. It’s not just the lack of physical activity of the youth but also the attitudes towards obesity in the northern communities that are problematic. Many parents who have overweight children do not see it as a problem.
“Often they tell me their child is not overweight; he is just a good size and it means we have a lot of money and are well,” says Vollant. But these attitudes are dangerous.
Vollant is a strong advocate of traditional aboriginal diets. “But they are eating too much carbohydrates and too much lipids. Maybe the North American diet is not good for our metabolism.”
Accessibility to proper nutrition in areas where financial resources can also be strained is another issue. “It is abnormal in our society that a two-litre of Pepsi is less expensive than one litre of milk,” says Vollant.
The stress of living below the poverty line also has its implications. “If you have a low social income, you are not happy and there is often a lot of violence. You are going to eat less well and do less exercise and I think that diabetes is a symptom of a larger problem.
“One Elder told me that diabetes was not well known by our ancestors. He told me that diabetes appeared because we removed the sweetness from our lives. That means that they are not well, they are not happy, they have been sent to residential schools, they did not have the chance to live with their moms and dads, they have experienced violence so the people who are unhappy have diseases like diabetes. So if we react and succeed in putting the sweetness in the lives of the people back, the people are going to be better and diabetes is going to go away.”