Did you know that there were 1,583 Cree living with diabetes as of July 1, 2007? Or that 100 Cree were diagnosed with diabetes over the past 12 months? That on average, one Cree is diagnosed with diabetes every 3.5 days or that 1 in 5 Cree adults has diabetes?

Though the rates for diabetes amongst the Cree population are three times higher than in the rest of Quebec, for as much as the numbers might come off as alarming there is some comfort to be found in those numbers.

According to Solomon Awashish, the Chronic Disease Prevention Officer for CBHSSJB, the numbers have jumped once again due to the rigorous screening campaigns that the board has been conducting. More diagnoses however mean that more people are being treated and being armed with the information that could very well save their lives.

“I think that people are more aware about diabetes. We have done different awareness campaigns and people are starting to talk about it. Even people with diabetes are more willing to talk about the disease and starting to come out of the denial stage. It is an important step, when people start recognizing that there is a problem,” said Awashish.

Though there has been much hullabaloo over the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay’s permanent move from Montreal to Mistissini, in the long run Awashish believes that this could benefit diabetes sufferers as the services the board offers will be closer to the Crees.

“I think that within the Cree Nation we have a great opportunity to be resilient here and I believe we have the resources to do that. We have the people and we have the resources and there is no other First Nation in Canada that has signed so many agreements to assist us and help us heal and become resilient,” said Awashish.

Feeling confident about their already omnipresent primary health campaigns for both diabetes screening and prevention, at this point Awashish and the rest of the board are seeing the necessity to add a third component to their focus. Due to the rapid onset of diabetes complications amongst the Cree population, “secondary prevention” campaigns will be a new focus for the CBHSSJB, which Awashish described as more of a medical service campaign.

“From the day that the average person in southern Quebec in a non-Native community is diagnosed with diabetes to when he/she starts showing early complications is about 20 years. For the Cree, it’s about five years. We are seeing early signs of kidney damage and eye damage. These are some of the signs that we are really looking at,” said Awashish.

New resources are also being developed to spread the word about diabetes and help those suffering from it learn more about how to manage it. At the time of his interview with the Nation, Awashish was in the process of working on a video about diabetes for the Cree population.

“As Crees we are not a very literary society, we are more of an oral and visual kind of people. So we thought that if we wanted to teach people about the treatment and control of diabetes then we should do it in a video format,” said Awashish.

Designed as a teaching tool, the hour-long film is geared towards those already living with diabetes and those newly diagnosed. It is intended to be screened in the clinics and the schools within the Cree communities.

“Most of the people we interviewed are living well with their diabetes. They

talk about how they deal with it in terms of physical activity, their families and the foods that they eat. The important thing is that it’s going to be in Cree with a little bit of English. All of the people in it speak Cree and there are some Elders who talk about the history and the old days,” said Awashish.

The video is being both produced and directed by Eastmain’s Shirley Cheechoo. Taking post-production time into account, Awashish is looking at a March 2009 launch for this “exciting” new way to reach the Cree people.

Despite this positive news, unfortunately there will be no diabetes conference this month as the CBHSSJB was unable to find a host community for the event. Although the conference may not be happening like it has in previous years, some communities have been making their own strides in terms of keeping their communities healthy.

Awashish was delighted to hear about Chisasibi’s homegrown and “Biggest Loser” contest where contestants are vying to see who can lose the most weight for a grand prize. (see page 7)

“We are still trying to convince communities that they have to come up with what is best for their people and a lot of the communities have come through

with their own health-promotion activities,” said Awashish, hopeful that even more communities would follow suit.

Awashish is also planning a new health-promotion campaign for Mistissini in the form of a “health challenge” where the name of the game is going to be eating healthier, exercising and laying off the cigarettes.

Since smoking can increase the complications of diabetes due to a diabetic’s predisposition to cardiovascular diseases and strokes and some recent studies have pointed out how smoking can increase the risk of diabetes, this will also be a facet of the challenge.

For those communities that do not have an organized public health challenge on the go, just about every community has the means to organize one or at least engage in some variety of exercise regime as the facilities are there if people are interested in them. Awashish said that there is a campaign underway to see the communities get more use out of resources available in each community.

“Every community has some sort of facility. Every school has a gymnasium that they could be used and some communities have their own facilities. In Mistissini, we have the sports complex which has a gymnasium and an arena as well as a fitness centre where people can go,” said Awashish.

In particular, Awashish would like to see Mistissini’s track-and-field facilities get a bit more use by the youth as there is a desperate need for them to exercise.

“We did a study of kids in Grades 4-6, and two thirds of them are either overweight or obese and there are more who are obese than overweight,” said Awashish.

With the idea of seeing the formation of a regional track-and-field meet in mind, Awashish thinks it would be great if one day students from Eeyou Istchee could compete in the Quebec provincial meets as it would be a great way to promote healthy living.

“We have to help the youth get healthier. We know that kids who are more physically active and eat healthy perform better academically. Of course that also comes with resting more and living a healthier lifestyle and some are currently doing that,” said Awashish.

When it comes to keeping the whole family healthy, Awashish mentioned the health benefits of taking time out to live traditionally. For those who favour the holistic approach to healing, Awashish, along with various other professionals, recommends bush life as a remedy for lowering blood sugars.

“What we know is that when people go to the bush or go hunting their sugar levels tend to drop. This is one way where our culture can play a big part in the treatment of diabetes,” said Awashish.

At the same time, in terms of research into the disease, the CBHSSJB is participating in a study involving the use of traditional medicine to treat and control sugar levels. The Universite de Montreal, McGill University and the University of Ottawa are all contributing to the study along with Montreal’s Botanical Gardens.

Whether it is preventing new cases, helping those suffering manage their symptoms or preventing new complications, the war on diabetes rages on. Though the new numbers may be hard to digest, the CBHSSJB’s efforts to reduce the damage are working. According to Awashish, up to 50% of people lowered both their choleserol levels and their blood pressure, dramatically impacting their sugar levels.

“There are other people out there who are starting to learn but at the same time too we have to keep on teaching,” said Awashish on a final note.