Indigenous elders take hope and diabetes education to northern communities

 Florence Highway (left) and Evelyn Linklater volunteer with Diabetes Canada’s Travelling Diabetes Resource Program, sharing their knowledge about living well with diabetes. supplied

Florence Highway (left) and Evelyn Linklater volunteer with Diabetes Canada’s Travelling Diabetes Resource Program, sharing their knowledge about living well with diabetes. supplied

Evelyn Linklater sounds younger than her 70-something years when she talks about her early childhood near Pelican Narrows, Saskatchewan. “We went out with my grandma to catch the fish we ate. My grandparents were old, but they were good paddlers, and we went fishing and camped. Those were awesome summers.”

She pauses. “That was before the residential schools, of course.”

In the 1940s, health studies in northern Saskatchewan didn’t identify a single Indigenous person with diabetes, says Elder Linklater. But chronic hunger has been linked to a higher prevalence of type 2 diabetes in later life, even over generations, and reports show that Indigenous children in residential schools were widely underfed. The impact, along with that of cultural erosion and trauma, has contributed to an epidemic of type 2 diabetes among Indigenous people, with rates three to five times higher than among Canada’s overall population. Limited access to medical care and affordable healthy food means that those who have diabetes are also more likely to experience serious complications.

Elder Linklater lost her mother, sister and brother to diabetes complications – when she was diagnosed, she says, she assumed she would be the next to go. But with constant hard work, access to healthy food, and physical activity, education and support, she has been able to remain healthy.

To honour her lost family, for the past five years Elder Linklater has volunteered with Florence Highway for Diabetes Canada’s Travelling Diabetes Resource Program, which brings education to the province’s remote communities in English and Cree.

“We let them know they don’t need to die from diabetes anymore,” she says.

For Elder Highway, diabetes caused physical, mental, emotional and spiritual suffering. When she was diagnosed 27 years ago, she says, “There was no education – they gave me lancets and said, ‘You’re diabetic.’”

Enormous barriers still exist for people in remote communities, she stresses. “We have to be sensitive as we encourage people there to eat healthy, because they just do not have access to the food we have – no fresh fruit, no vegetables,” she says. “We still need to encourage them, though. A lot of people say, ‘I don’t feel sick. I don’t feel pain.’ So we show them pictures of healthy organs and those damaged by
diabetes.”

Evelyn and I stand there and say, ‘Look at us. Have we not changed our way of life for a better life in our older years?’”

Since 2012, Diabetes Canada has supported 400 visits to Saskatchewan First Nations communities, reaching 15,000 people. To find out more about and support programs offered by Diabetes Canada, visit diabetes.ca.

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