Hot of the heels of his “virtual walk” from Mistissini to Waskaganish, Sol Awashish, a member of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay’s Chronic Disease team, made a special presentation at the Annual General Assembly of the Cree Nation to update the people about the latest statistics on the diabetes rate amongst Crees.

Once again, Awashish embarked on another virtual walk to represent the 500 km between Mistissini and Waskaganish to promote the virtues of exercise. This has been part of his annual AGA ritual, despite it being both difficult and physically grueling.

“When June rolled around I realized that it was almost summertime and that I only had two months to make it to Waskaganish. I had to walk 500 km in two months and so that turned into 10, 15 and sometimes 20 km per day that I had to walk. It takes me two hours to walk 10 km,” said Awashish.

What is most redeeming about this walk for Awashish is that he believes his efforts are paying off. The message seems to be getting out and Crees have started walking more. At the same time, he was happy to report that the number of people being diagnosed with diabetes is dropping.

According to the latest numbers available from the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay (CBHSSJB), as of January 2012, 2086 Crees had been diagnosed with diabetes, of whom 96 were diagnosed as new cases in 2011 alone.

Breaking this down, of the 2086 cases, 2071 were diagnosed in adults who were 20 years old and over. Of these cases, the trend is that more women are being diagnosed than men, with 1,242 cases to 829.

What this means is that 22% of the adult population of Crees is affected by the disease or about one in five, with 18.6% of the coastal population being affected and 26.9% of the inland population being affected.

The rate of diabetes in Eeyou Istchee is 3.5 times higher than the rest of the province.

While less people may be being diagnosed annually, what troubles Awashish the most is that more than half of the new cases are individuals who are under 40 years old.

“More young people are starting to get diabetes and many of them are the second and third generation of families with diabetics. It’s hereditary, so if there is a family history of it then people should get screened,” said Awashish.

According to Awashish, this is a direct threat to the future of the Cree nation and so it is incredibly worrisome, particularly as the suffering is needless. Diabetes is entirely preventable.

However, obesity amongst Crees is rampant with eight out of 10 Cree adults being overweight, if not obese. It has become the norm.

“The reason we are seeing this is a mixture of things. There’s that theory going around that we have the ‘thrifty gene’ [Native bodies hang on to calories] and scientists have really been debating that.

“I believe that for us as Native people, the Creator created us in a way that allowed us to survive through times of plenty and times of famine as that is how our forefathers and ancestors used to be. During times of famine our bodies would burn up the fat that we were storing. Now we are living in times of plenty where there isn’t any starvation, but we still have that gene,” said Awashish.

In addition, many Crees eat pre-prepared foods bought in grocery stores or eat out in the restaurants and the problem only accelerates. What most people tend to bring home from the grocery store is what tastes good – which involves a lot of fat, sugar and salt.

Awashish said his department has tried working with local restaurants to create healthier menus. However, restaurants are more concerned with what people prefer to eat rather than what is healthy. And, he can’t blame them as the restaurants are there to do good business, not make sure that their clients are eating properly. If a healthy menu isn’t selling, it is no surprise when a restaurant turns around and serves something else.

But when it comes to supermarket choices, it is becoming clearer that the people of Eeyou Istchee are choosing foods with poorer nutrition value because that is what they can afford. Many Crees can’t buy the fresh fruits and vegetables available at their local stores because they cost too much.

“What I’ve noticed is that the price of junk food is pretty much the same in the north and in the south, but the price for healthy foods is really expensive. We need to find a way or a new program to subsidize the transportation of this food so that we can have healthy food that is reasonably priced. The people who work here have northern allowance to subsidize the cost of groceries, but a lot of others, like the seasonal workers, don’t get a northern allowance,” said Awashish.

On his arrival in Waskaganish, Awashish and serveral coworkers took to the streets of the community to bang on their pots and pans as a way of telling the Cree leadership that sometimes these pots and pans are empty because of the outrageous cost of food.

And if the population can’t afford to eat properly then the suffering will only continue. In terms of that suffering, there are many Crees who not only have diabetes but also have complications caused by the disease.

“There are a lot of people who are on dialysis. That number has gone up within a five-year period from 2005 when there were 25 people to 2010 when there were 41, so it’s almost double,” said Awashish.

As part of the new Health Agreement, dialysis is now going to be offered in Waskaganish as well as other communities as there is a demand for it throughout the Cree nation. Kidney failure isn’t the only complication; eyesight problems stemming from diabetes as well as the loss of limbs are also major issues amongst Crees.

“There are many complications amongst those who are third-generation diabetics and they are getting these complications at a much earlier age than before. I know a young woman who is 24 and has two children and she is on dialysis and that’s really sad,” said Awashish.

At the same time, the CBHSSJB recognizes that this is a major issue and there is a strong desire for the Board to work with the communities to provide healthier environments for the Cree people.

Because for every two men who have diabetes there are three women with it amongst the Crees, Awashish said the CBHSSJB is looking at how best to address this.

“We are recommending to the communities, that we now need to do more work with the women and young girls as they tend to gain more weight at a younger age and then you factor in the gestational diabetes. A lot of women are already heavy when they get pregnant.

“We need to work more with the young girls and women before they get pregnant. Some of the communities are actually working quite hard to do this. There are (now) activities that target these young women and this is a good sign,” said Awashish.