A Traditional Winter Wellness Journey will be wending its way through the communities of Eeyou Istchee this winter. The Cree Diabetes Network (CDN) and the Public Health Department of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay (CBHSSJB) have announced MIYUPIMAATISIITAAU 2002, a journey on snowshoes that will make its way through all nine Cree communities.

The Wellness Journey is intended to raise awareness and promote prevention of diabetes. The rate of diabetes among the Cree is an alarming 3 to 5 times higher than the Canadian average and is still escalating. Diabetes affects 3 – 5 % of Canadians over the age of 18, but figures for the Cree in Quebec run from 7 -18.8 % depending on the community.

The journey will begin in Waswanipi and then proceed to Ouje-Bougoumou, Mistissini, Nemaska, Waskaganish, Eastmain, Wemindji, Radisson, Whapmagoostui and finally end up in Chisasibi. The total distance covered by the snowshoers will be% about 1400kms. The entire journey will be made on snowshoes, but some dogs may be used to help carry supplies.

The group, led by Freddy Jolly from Nemaska, is hoping for a core of 22 walkers comprising two representatives from each community, two representatives from the Health Board, and two local guides to be alternated at each community. Walkers who only wish to participate in various segments of the journey are also encouraged to get involved.

The anticipated start and finish dates are January 17 – March 22, 2002. The group will be gathering in Waswanipi the week of January 14th to conduct a series of workshops for the walkers. The workshops will cover a range of pertinent subjects including rules and regulations for the journey, survival skills as shared by an elder, information on diabetes and how it particularly affects the Cree, and a session dealing with teamwork. “In the old days our ancestors worked in teams,” said organizer Solomon Awashish, who stressed the need for a strong group effort by the walkers in order to successfully complete the long, demanding journey.

Awashish hopes the journey will help foster a greater awareness of diabetes and possible prevention of the disease. He feels that people need to learn more about the symptoms, how to adapt their lifestyles to help reduce the risks of getting diabetes, and need to be encouraged to get tested regularly. Some of the signs to watch for include increased thirst, unexplained weight loss and frequent urination, but these symptoms can sometimes take a long time to show up. “It’s a silent disease, ” Awashish warns, “it’s possible to have it for five or ten years without knowing.”

Family history and lifestyle can be factors in deciding who becomes affected by diabetes. Awashish encourages people to get tested, especially if diabetes runs in their family, and to learn as much as they can about how diabetes affects the body. A healthier diet and physical activity, especially walking, are considered essential in staving off the disease. “We have to start doing traditional physical activities and eat traditional food to improve our health,” said Awashish. The Wellness Journey will practice what it preaches, with the walkers leading by example.