Initiatives Fight Diabetes Across Nation

By Lloyd Dolha

Across the nation, a number of initiatives are underway to help First Nations battle the growing epidemic of diabetes. In July, the Assembly of First Nation’s Women’s Council launched a first-time Fitness Challenge to Canada’s First Nations leadership with help of former Olympian Waneek Horn-Miller and former Pittsburgh Penguins Captain Dan Frawley to stress the positive link between healthy living and controlling diabetes.

The challenge began in August and continues to the end of October. Chiefs were challenged to set up teams of ten participants to take part in daily fitness activities and record their progress. “It was actually quite a good turnout,” said Karen Pugliese, of the AFN’s Health Secretariat, “We had quite a few groups participate.” Pugliese said some 42 teams were set up across the nation, with 19 from the province of British Columbia. AFN’s Women’s Council chair Kathleen McHugh says, “Aerobic exercise and resistance exercise can help people with diabetes better control their blood sugar levels by burning fat and glucose. Diabetics are also in a high-risk group for heart disease and stoke, and exercise can help reduce the risk.” Top performers of the national fitness challenge will be honoured at a Chief’s Special Assembly in December 2008.

Diabetes is 3 to 5 times more common among First Nations than the general population. This gap has been increasing, alarmingly so among middle-aged men and older women. Statistically, the rate of diabetes increases with age (one in 3 among those 55 years and older develop the disease) and also among those living in isolated communities, among those who did not graduate from high school, and among those speaking or understanding a First Nation language.

Many First Nations children and youth are at high risk of developing diabetes. First Nations youth are less likely than adults to eat a nutritious and balanced diet or eat traditional protein-based meats. About 42% of First Nations youth are either overweight or obese, and the rate is even higher among First Nations children. A direct correlation has been found between First Nations childhood obesity and lower family income, overcrowding, poor nutrition, reduced physical activity, and lower levels of educational achievement.

In Manitoba, researcher Paul Hackett has just launched a two-year examination of the history of diabetes in Manitoba and Saskatchewan First Nations. A geography professor, Hackett’s research is closely supported by the Saskatchewan Population Health and Evaluation Research Unit. He said his involvement with the unit fits naturally with his interest in the area of aboriginal health. Although Hackett’s project began on Oct. 1 and he has researched only Manitoba First Nations, he’s already seeing some trends regarding the historical incidence of diabetes. “It relates to changes in diet and changes in lifestyle, so I’m interested in finding out how that varied over time,” said Hackett. He said he feels he’s “more likely to find differences between north and south and isolated versus non-isolated populations,” rather than between provinces.

Measures such as bringing more traditional foods in First Nation diets may help, but Hackett says it is a complex issue because of the increased cost of foods in more isolated communities and the issue of how to get those foods to people living off-reserve. In addition to health-care officials, he intends to get the input of elders and band officials. “There’s a lot of wisdom in the community you don’t get unless you talk to people.” Hackett hopes his research will help in tailoring health-care programs so that non-aboriginal people can also be informed about the situation.

In Ontario, the provincial government announced a $741 million investment of new funding to create a comprehensive diabetes strategy over the next four years to prevent, manage, and treat diabetes. One key element of the strategy is an educational campaign focused on First Nations to prevent diabetes by raising awareness of risk factors among First Nations.

In British Columbia, the Namgis First Nation of Alert Bay have been following a traditional diet regime set out Métis physician Dr. Jay Wortman in a year-long experiment featuring more traditional aboriginal diet (based on fats and protein) to fight obesity and diabetes. The experiment is recorded in the CBC documentary My Big Fat Diet directed by filmmakers Mary Bissell and Barb Cramner. My Big Fat Diet chronicles how the First Nation goes “cold turkey” and gives up sugar and junk food in the experimental diet study sponsored by Health Canada and University of British Columbia (UBC). Participants have all showed improved blood profiles as well as weight loss. A researcher at UBC is analyzing the results of the study.