of the James Bay Cree gather around the fire as part of a
week-long celebration called wellness week, aimed
at improving personal health and wellness in their community
in northern Québec. (David DyckFehderau), Author provided
When Emilys mother lay dying of kidney failure from years
of diabetes, Emily begged the doctors to take her kidney and transplant
it into her mom. But the doctors refused Emily had diabetes
too. She would need both kidneys herself.
Like many Indigenous groups around the world, the James Bay Cree
of northern Québec have a disproportionately high rate of
diabetes. Theyre facing it down with a decidedly Indigenous
solution: A Talking Circle in print.
In 2012, the Cree Board of
Health and Social Services of James Bay (CBHSSJB) assigned local
Cree health representatives to choose people with diabetes whose
stories they thought significant people like Emily. Then
they hired me, (a freelance
writer and academic),
to bring them into print.
Gathered in The Sweet Bloods
of Eeyou Istchee: Stories of Diabetes and the James Bay Cree,
the stories, at least as much about life in the North as they are
about diabetes, are part record, part awareness-raising. They reveal
unmistakable connections to colonization. And they are meant to
help people heal.
A global problem
Diabetes is a mounting global challenge costing at
least US$825 billion a year. And rates are rising quickly.
The World Health Organization reports: Globally,
an estimated 422 million adults were living with diabetes in 2014,
compared to 108 million in 1980. The global prevalence (age-standardized)
of diabetes has nearly doubled since 1980, rising from 4.7% to 8.5%
in the adult population.
return from long traditional healing journeys out on the land,
and are greeted by the community, during wellness week.
(David DyckFehderau), Author provided
In the last few months of 2017 alone, The New York Times, in separate
articles, covered skyrocketing rates of diabetes and/or obesity
Hunting for Indigenous solutions
Planet-wide, diabetes rates are higher (often several
times higher) among
Indigenous peoples, and Canada
is no exception. While researchers struggle to
determine causes and begin to acknowledge that our human relationship
to food is
more complicated than we knew, Indigenous groups are coming
up with their own solutions.
The James Bay Cree of Northern Québec, a population of 18,000
people, live in 10 communities on their traditional
territory of Eeyou Istchee. The territory covers about 450,000
square kilometres, and they actively use all of it in their life
on the land.
bear is prepared for the feast at the traditional camp community
gathering. (David DyckFehderau), Author provided
Currently, every Eeyou Istchee family is directly affected by diabetes.
This situation makes for massive overall costs both in health care
and in cultural impact as they work to maintain cultural traditions
while managing illness, often dying younger than they otherwise
would, taking their precious traditional knowledge with them.
Paul Linton, assistant director of public health, states: Its
a huge problem and we are trying to get people to start the conversation
to see how to fix it. Its not a simple pill or injection.
It involves the cost of food, the housing, the social structures,
the traditional teachings, the animals on the land.
Compounding the problem are misinformation, isolation, earned distrust
of Western medicine and silence. Sometimes the silence is
borne from stigma one
fellow, for instance, couldnt tell even his wife of his diabetes
for years, keeping his meds in the car and sometimes
from the habit of keeping medical information private.
Getting creative about healthcare
In 2012, I was living in Eeyou Istchee when the Cree Board of Health
and Social Services of James Bay approached me with a project. Fly
to the communities, they said. Hear the stories of people living
with diabetes and write them up. Travel out again (as often as necessary)
to have the storytellers correct and approve them. Then compile
them into a book.
They were looking for a print version of a Talking Circle, a cultural
event that brings people together to hear and tell stories, to discuss,
problem solve and correct misinformation and to heal.
slowly roast over the fire at a community gathering. (David
DyckFehderau), Author provided
Talking Circles, according to the book introduction, assume that
health and wellness or disease and sickness might be as much about
a spiritual or emotional or intellectual part of a person as [about
the] physical being,
that storytelling is a healing act,
[and] that individual healing cannot be separated from community
This creativity-centred approach is in keeping with a long
Indigenous tradition of using story as medicine.
Stories better than pills
The stories, 27 in all, are sometimes gut-wrenching, often funny,
each one distinct from the next.
In some of them, diabetes is front and centre. In others, its
just part of the background of a well-lived life and hardly gets
mentioned. In none of them are the storytellers victims.
snow in the town of Mistissini. (David DyckFehderau), Author
Jonathan, an elite high-school athlete headed for a pro hockey
career, learns that most people with his blood sugar levels would
Raquel has controlled her diabetes carefully for 30 years but struggles
to convince her doctor to take her seriously.
Jack is an amputee who hunts in the bush with one leg (and tells
kids that river sharks chewed the other one off).
Jennifer, undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia, barely registers
her diabetes diagnosis.
Leonard runs away from residential school repeatedly, and later
deals with the emotional complexity of working for the very government
that sent him there.
Angela goes into labour in an ice storm, barely manages not to
deliver during the hair-raising cab ride, only to arrive at the
wrong hospital and learn that she isnt permitted to give birth
there either. That hospital doesnt deliver babies and, in
fact, has a rule against it.
And Victor tells of radical changes after the river his community
depended upon for food and livelihood turned brackish because of
a hydro-electric dam. It killed the fish, it made the water undrinkable,
and it forced the local diet and way of life to change.
Diabetes and colonization entwined
Coming up repeatedly in the stories is the long-term impact on
Cree health of residential schools, of radical changes in exercise
and diet and of industry-related projects like the James
Bay hydroelectric dam.
In other words, the stories reveal ways in which the disease is
intimately connected to a history of colonization.
Taken together, they paint a vivid picture of life in the North.
And of people facing diabetes with agency, tremendous creativity
The material was originally written for Indigenous peoples of Canada
and recently made available to the public. Funded in part by Health
Canada, the book is free
to people living on Canadian Indigenous reserves and traditional
territories and available on Amazon
for the rest of us.
All proceeds go to long-term health care for people living with
diabetes in Eeyou Istchee.
You can read a sample
sun sets over the town of Mistissini, northern Québec.
(David DyckFehderau), Author provided
Instructor of English and Creative Writing , University of
Dyck Fehderau does not work for, consult, own shares in or
receive funding from any company or organization that would
benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations
beyond their academic appointment.