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. “I always tell the old people to keep on eating what they ate before we had stores. My grandma fed us lots of native foods from Mother Earth.”
Chronic hunger has been linked to 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 also means that those who have diabetes are also more likely to experience serious complications.
When she was diagnosed more than 30 years ago, not knowing much about diabetes, Elder Linklater thought it was a death sentence. “I just thought, ‘I guess I’m the next to go, then.’ I lost my mother and sister to diabetes complications. My brother, too – he lost his eyesight, then his limbs. Finally, he gave up the spirit to live and he died too. I miss them.”
To honour her lost family and help those in her community avoid similar tragedy, Elder Linklater volunteered with Florence Highway and Diabetes Canada’s Travelling Diabetes Resource Program (TDRP) to bring 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. “I didn't know, for the longest time, that I was diabetic,” she explains. “And prior to that, I went to [residential] school and was disconnected from my family. Of course, I didn’t learn to look after myself. My perception was that only people who carried extra weight were diabetic. I was only 92 pounds when I was diagnosed. That was 27 years ago, when there was no education – they gave me lancets and said, ‘You're diabetic.’”
Elder Highway feels fortunate to have access to health care and affordable fresh food, because she now lives in the city.
“We have to be sensitive as we encourage people in northern communities to eat healthy, because they just do not have access to the food we have – no fresh fruit, no vegetables. We still need to encourage them, though. We walk them through my life, how difficult it was with no support, information and resources – no one to tell us how devastating diabetes can be if you don't look after yourself. 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?’”
Diabetes Canada also works with organizations, volunteers, communities and governments to:
- improve access to nutritious and affordable foods that incorporate traditional diets,
- develop culturally appropriate services and train health-care professionals,
- ensure fair access to diabetes education, medication, devices and supplies, and
- monitor data on Indigenous health, including diabetes, to help plan services.
Through partnerships with dedicated volunteers and organizations that include Aboriginal Diabetes Initiative and the First Nations Health Authority, Diabetes Canada has helped offer more than 200 courses to improve food skills and has supported 400 visits to Saskatchewan First Nations communities, reaching 15,000 people.
In 2012, Elder Linklater and Elder Highway were named National Volunteers of the Year by Diabetes Canada. For nine years, they drove the TDRP van on many long trips into northern communities, teaching children and their families to make healthy choices and avoid high-risk foods like pop, a devastatingly appealing option in communities that may not have access to fresh, clean water.
“We’d drive up and the children would come running when they saw the van – they know us,” says Elder Highway. “‘Look, look, Kokum [Cree for grandma] – I'm drinking water now, they’d say.’”
To find out more about and support programs offered by Diabetes Canada, visit diabetes.ca.