Calling the diabetes epidemic a ticking “timebomb,” Cree officials slammed the Quebec government for ignoring warnings about the health crisis for years. They were responding to a new study that found Crees have one of the world’s highest diabetes rates.

“It’s quite shocking to me,” said Bill Namagoose, executive director of the Grand Council of the Crees.

“The diabetes epidemic is overtaking our health services. It’s a timebomb. It’s five minutes to noon on this issue.”

Namagoose criticized the province for cutting off negotiations with Crees on health care and other issues in February.

Guy Chevrette, Quebec’s native-affairs minister, told Crees in a Feb. 10 letter that the negotiations were suspended because of the Cree forestry lawsuit filed last summer.

The lawsuit argues that clear-cut logging has left the Cree territory a barren, lifeless wasteland, even though the Cree hunting-and-trapping way of life was supposed to be protected by the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.

Namagoose accused Quebec of trying to “blackmail” Crees: “Health should not be a political pawn.”

He said Cree health care is “vastly underfunded,” and called on the province to live up to its 1975 promise in the James Bay Agreement to fund Cree health care at the same level as the rest of Quebec.

The new diabetes study was published May 4 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. It found almost 13 per cent of Cree women giving birth have gestational diabetes, a form of the illness that occurs during pregnancy. That is twice the North American average and the second-highest in a First Nation worldwide.

The study caught health ministry officials off-guard with little information to offer inquiring journalists about the Cree diabetes epidemic.

Nicole Bastien, a spokeswoman for Quebec Health Minister Pauline Marois, said she wasn’t aware of the high diabetes rate.

Dr. Robert Harris, a Chisasibi Hospital public-health expert, said Aboriginal people worldwide are facing diabetes explosions due to sudden lifestyle changes often brought on by development projects. In 1975, when the James Bay Agreement was signed, just three Crees were known to have diabetes.

Harris said there are simple ways to prevent or cope with diabetes: changing diet, exercizing and reducing stress. But he said Crees need support from their communities and health workers, and that means more funding is needed.

Gestational diabetes normally goes away after birth, but a woman who had it is more likely to need a caesarian section and to get diabetes later. Her baby also has more chance of birth trauma and being born overweight, said Elizabeth Robinson, a Cree Health Board doctor who co-authored the study.

As of May 1998, 10 per cent of Crees 15 years and up were diagnosed with some type of diabetes, more than double the Canadian average of 4 per cent. In Mistissini, 18 per cent are diagnosed with diabetes, but many others have the illness without knowing it.

The health board is planning a complete screening of all residents in two Cree communities this summer to get more accurate figures.