In a photo from the 1960s, Jennifer No Runner poses with eight of her relatives. The cousins and siblings stand in front of a school bus near Standoff on the Blood Reserve in Southern Alberta. Most are under the age of 10.
“My cousin Cindy and my brother,” No Runner says, pointing to two little children in the back row. Then she motions to the group. “They almost all have diabetes. My cousin Robert No Runner died from it.”
Diabetes, she explains, runs on both sides of her family — and new research may explain why.
According to a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, a long-standing federal government policy that required First Nations children to attend residential schools away from their families has contributed to the diabetes epidemic seen on Canadian reserves today.
“There’s quite a bit of evidence that children who attended residential schools across Canada, in different provinces and territories and over many decades of the 20th century, were very hungry,” said Tracey Galloway, professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto and one of the study’s co-authors.
“What we found is that those children experienced lifelong consequences to their health, and in fact their children and grandchildren bear the biological costs of that hunger and malnutrition.”
Galloway says children who suffer from malnutrition in their youth go on to have a body that wants to accumulate fat reserves more quickly than it accumulates muscle. As a result, these children are at a higher risk of obesity, insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes, and this increased risk is passed to their children and grandchildren.
“Children are carrying within their bodies the cells that will later become their own children, and so these cells are affected by these biological changes,” Galloway said.
According to the Canadian Diabetes Association, among Canada’s general population, diabetes impacts one in 10 people over the age of 20. On reserves, however, that rate increases to one in six, and in some First Nations communities it can be as high as one in four.
Galloway says moving forward, the government can do a few things to improve these numbers, including expanding the Aboriginal Diabetes Initiative to ensure all First Nations community members have access.
“It’s an excellent program that funds diabetes management and prevention services, but it doesn’t reach all communities,” Galloway said. “We’d also like to see some immediate action on childhood hunger in Indigenous communities. Food insecurity rates on reserves is very high, and it’s not decreasing.”
Back in Standoff, No Runner believes part of the solution to this epidemic lies within First Nations culture itself.
“I was very lucky I had a grandfather who taught me the old ways and I followed the teachings,” No Runner explained, “and I’m proud to say I don’t have any physical ailments.”