Helen Tootoosis is trying to bridge the gap between Indigenous culture and living with diabetes.
“My late husband had diabetes, a bunch of my siblings do, my mother had it, I have it,” Tootoosis said. “It’s running rampant in all First Nations communities.”
Diabetes Canada says more than 100,000 people have been diagnosed with diabetes in Saskatchewan, while another 173,000 have pre-diabetes. An estimated 43,000 have not been diagnosed.
Between genetic and environmental factors, Aboriginal people are disproportionately affected by the disease.
“They are three to five times more at risk for diabetes than the general population,” Diabetes Canada regional director Brie Hnetka said. “Right now in indigenous communities when a child is born, they have an 80 to 95 per cent chance risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.”
That’s why Tootoosis started a diabetes ambassador training program geared towards Indigenous people.
The day-long course includes information about changing technology, elder’s perspectives, embracing traditional and western medicine, and healthy eating.
“What I’m working towards is trying to promote more traditional eating, healthier eating, trying to bring back traditional food knowledge of the foods we used to eat,” chef and speaker Kirk Ermine explained.
The Sturgeon Lake man went into a diabetic coma 17 years ago while attending a family wedding. The scary episode prompted him to pursue a career as a chef, and teach others about how to embrace historically significant foods.
“That’s what I believe has led us to diabetes- the introduction to dairy products, processed foods, and gluten-rich foods. Traditionally, our people didn’t eat gluten and we didn’t have many dairy products in our diet,” he added.
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At the end of the day, participants will return to their communities across the province to pass on their knowledge and implement new supports and programs.
More than 50 people traveled to Regina and Saskatoon to take part in two sessions this week.
“We do a lot of traditional foods,” Standing Buffalo Dakota First Nations’ Maureen Yuzicappi said. “We practice our culture along with the western way. They go hand in hand because in this day and age it’s difficult to go one way without the other.”
While there are still barriers remaining, participants say it’s an empowering step forward to halting the diabetes epidemic on the province’s First Nations.