by Amy German –

When the first Cree Regional Diabetes Conference was held in 2006, the plan was to make it an annual event, said organizer Janis Neeposh. Unfortunately it would take until 2015 and for the community of Oujé-Bougoumou to pick up the reins to make this happen, resulting in a resounding success according to attendees.

From October 27-29, the community hosted a major three-day event in conjunction with the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay that saw people from all over the region come together to learn about diabetes and the health of Crees.

“Because November is Diabetes Awareness Month, we decided to have it right before to inspire the Eeyou Eenou people to search for accessible information in the communities so that they can participate and encourage their friends to practice healthy routines,” said Neeposh.

“I was really grateful that we had our own Cree teams and our Cree Health Board team (on hand) to share their learning and presentations with the people on things like the importance of Cree food, eating well while travelling, shopping smart at the grocery store, and smoking and diabetes.

Neeposh said that at the end of the event, the feedback she got from participants was that they wished the event to have been longer so that people could have attended all of the workshops that were offered.

Reflecting from her own experience, Neeposh said she appreciated seeing people come forward to share personal stories about how they learned to control the disease.

She especially enjoyed learning about how traditional medicine can now play a role in the treatment of diabetes in a presentation by Mistissini’s Pat Awashish.

“My main goal for the conference was to inspire people not to give up on themselves as it is time to take our lives back and change our habits if we have to. We really need to improve the balance in our lives so that we can avoid health complications in the future,” said Neeposh.

As a Planning, Program and Research Officer in Public Health who has worked on the diabetes file for many years, Sol Awashish said that one goal at this event was to showcase Crees instead of outsiders.

“Most of the speakers were local resource people. I have always thought that we need to use our own people as part of the healing process. In the past, we have had high-profile people come and speak, but then they leave the community and we never see them again. Our people are here year round and they know what is going on in the communities. It makes so much more sense because they actually live in the communities,” said Awashish.

In his presentation, Awashish said the focus was on working with individual communities to come up with grassroots solutions to work on the diabetes epidemic. For years the CBHSSJB only provided information on how to eat right and live well through diet and exercise. However, the number of cases of diabetes in Eeyou Istchee continued to grow.

With this in mind, Awashish said that Public Health is working on a new approach to fight diabetes, which is to get the people to come up with their own plan and then have the Health Board facilitate it.

“We are getting back to basics; we want people to tell us what they want and we will do that,” said Awashish. “We are asking the communities to set up sub-committees and with this new health committee we will provide the training. In some cases, the training has already been done. Because of the turnover of personnel and people in the communities, every time there is a new leader we have to do another orientation – we are always going back and forth.”

Public Health’s Paul Linton made a presentation on the latest diabetes numbers for Eeyou Istchee, revealing both good and bad news.

“We now have one in every four Crees who is being diagnosed as diabetic. The tricky thing about this is that if you look at information from the World Health Organization, the Canadian Diabetes Association, the American Diabetes Association and even those in Europe, they all say that for every case that is diagnosed, there is another one that you don’t know about and so that puts us up to 50% according to what they are saying,” said Linton.

He said that the good news is that the number of cases being diagnosed per year has pretty much stabilized to an average of about 136 annually.

Among Eeyouch, rates are higher in women than in men: 29.2% vs. 20.2%. This is the inverse of the rest of Quebec and Canada, where men have a higher diabetes rate than women.

Linton addressed this issue in his presentation, discussing what may be behind these numbers. Rates in women may be higher because of complications during pregnancy, gaining more weight when they take standard tests for diabetes. Men, he said, may be “too chicken to get tested.”

“Even when we look at those who go for blood tests, it is almost always women and never men and so in any given month you will have 50 women who will get tested and two men. Why we ask? Where are the other 48 men who should be getting tested? We are trying to make changes. One of them is we are encouraging men to go with their pregnant partners for their gestational diabetes test and do a sugar test at the same time,” explained Linton.

The idea behind this is that knowing about your health is the best way to move forward in starting a family. Until the cycle is broken, Eeyou Istchee will continue to have a diabetes problem, Linton said.

“We have to ask the question, is this just genetics? The answer is yes and no. Yes, there is a genetic disposition but most of your lifestyle like what you cook and what you eat and the amount of activity that you do are all things that you have learned from your parents and your grandparents. So, if your parents and grandparents are diabetic and you continue with the same lifestyle and eating habits, chances are you will end up diabetic too!”