Little did I know when I arrived in Mistissini that the walk across Eeyou Istchee to raise awareness about diabetes would be arriving during my stay. It was a pleasant surprise as I had heard about the possibility of this walk in the summer. At that time it was only a dream of Soloman Awashish. Awashish knew the numbers of Crees coming down with diabetes was dangerously high and he wanted to do something about it.
His bosses at the Cree Health Board agreed with him and decided to let him go ahead with his idea. The reality though was overwhelming as 42 walkers started the trip from Waswanipi, went through Ouje-Bougoumou and arrived in Mistissini. This in a sense though is only a small part of the trip as the walkers will continue on visiting all nine communities and end up in Chisasibi. When they finish in March they will have completed the longest walk yet. We wish them all the best and will bring updates and photos as the trip progresses.
The Nation: When I last talked to you in the summer this walk was only a dream. How does it feel to see a dream become a reality?
Soloman Awashish: I’m overwhelmed. I’m thrilled. I’m excited at how far we’ve gone. We started in Waswanipi and here we are in Mistissini. We’re coming along great.
Are you getting the message out about diabetes?
I think we are getting the message out. By the time our walk is finished we want everyone to be sick and tired about hearing about diabetes. Hopefully they’ll do something about it.
I know you have some people on the walk with diabetes and others have friends or relatives with diabetes?
Yes, we’re all affected by diabetes. Every single person in Eeyou Istchee knows of someone who has diabetes. I think it’s more than an epidemic in the Cree territory. The Quebec government in January announced that diabetes was an epidemic in Quebec with a three per cent rate. In the Cree territory we Crees are at 17 and close to 18 per cent. I think you call that a pandemic.
It’s more than what Quebec considers an epidemic?
Yes, and we’ve been suffering like this for the past ten years at least. For Crees we have take matters in our hands and heal ourselves.
What’s your words of advice for those dealing with diabetes or wishing to prevent it?
Exercise. That’s the key word. We have to eat more traditional food but not so you get large. Too much of anything is not good for you. Don’t eat the whole goose but have a piece. Don’t eat any poutine.
The most important thing is to learn about diabetes. What causes it and what is it. How can you get it and how you can prevent it.
The other thing we want to tell people is to get tested for it. It is possible to have diabetes and not know it for five to ten years by the time symptoms set in.
What is the test like?
Well there are certain protocols. The simplest one is where they prick one of your fingers. A small sample gives a blood sugar reading instantly and that’ll tell you whether or not you need more testing. It’s pretty accurate.
After that if they feel your sugar level is too high then they’ll take a blood sample. They’ll give an appointment to come back. In this test you have to fast for 12 hours before it. This includes no liquids and snacks.
We recommend that everyone gets tested as it is the only way to know if you have diabetes or not.
Group Leader Freddy Jolly: I’m the leader of this group. There’s 42 of us all together from when we started from Waswanipi to arrive here in Mistissini.
How’s the Walk going?
It’s hard. Some people have had problems with their knees and some have blisters on their feet. Then there’s the cold to deal with.
When we first started the walk we traveled very slowly. Then after a couple of days it seemed to have changed. Now we are going faster.
There’s hardly any snow in some places and in other places there’s a lot of slush. Sometimes we had to walk on the side of the road because of the branches sticking out of the snow on the trail. A couple of days were hard. The longest walk we did in one day on snowshoes was 25 kilometres. It was hard on us. Especially in the evenings when we stop, then you can feel how tired you are. Our dogs really helped us.
When we slept on the trail at night the temperatures were really cold. When you get up you could feel it.
This journey and these walkers tell what is in their lives and what they are going through. It could be drugs or alcohol and when they speak you can see tears in their eyes. Before we leave we hug and shake hands. When we started there was hardly any talking to each but now we are starting to talk to each and open up. I see there is joy out there with the walkers even though this journey is hard.
It’s fun and we are getting to know each from all of the communities. Well, except Wemindji, there’s no walkers from there yet.
I can see these young people and they are happy out there in the bush.
Before we walk we pray each morning.
Some of the walkers have diabetes, the journey has to be hard on them?
Yes, we have four walkers with diabetes. We have been watching them. When we started from Ouje-Bougoumou, one of the guys was shaking, so I know it’s hard on them.
For me when I’m not in front I keep an eye on them.
There’s one guy that told me that every time we arrive in a community they have to go and have a check-up at the clinic. He said the walk is helping him and he is going to go all the way.
About 30 of the walkers have said they will go all the way.
In March it will get easier because the snow will be harder and we’ll be able to walk faster. Probably about 30 kilometers a day.
I would like to thank all the communities that are supporting us in this walk with the feasts and all that. 1 would like to thank the Elders who have encouraged us in each community.