Choosing good health in northern Manitoba
About five years ago, Ted Bland’s doctor told him it was time to start taking insulin injections to keep his type 2 diabetes under control. Bland said no and told his doctor he would return in two weeks.
Bland—who was Chief of York Factory First Nation at the time—went home to do some online research and ordered a book called 7 Steps to Health: The Big Diabetes Lie. “The book was life-changing for me,” he says. “I learned a lot of different things about diet and its impact on type 2 diabetes.”
He read the book in just two days and changed his eating habits immediately. He cut out sugar, white flour, margarine, and other processed foods and instead ate more fruits and vegetables. He also stopped taking his diabetes medication and his blood pressure medication. As promised, he returned to his doctor two weeks later.
The doctor checked Bland’s blood sugar. It was 6.9 mmol/L, well within the normal range of 5–10 and far below the 14 that Bland had measured on his previous visit.
The doctor was impressed and more than a little surprised, but still thought Bland should start taking insulin injections. Again, Bland said no to insulin, and yes to continued healthy living: fruits, vegetables, superfood supplements, daily exercise, and twice-daily meditation.
“I know it can be done; I have good discipline. I know what it takes to do it. But it can be very hard to maintain,” says Bland.
This is especially true in a First Nation where diabetes is rampant. According to Diabetes Canada, “age-standardized prevalence rates for diabetes are 17.2% among First Nations individuals living on-reserve, 10.3% among First Nations individuals living off-reserve, and 7.3% among Métis people.” This is compared to 5.0% of the Canadian population as a whole. Current models for Manitoba suggest that First Nations children are 25 times more likely to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes than non-Indigenous children. It is nothing short of a crisis, and Bland points to the poor availability of affordable healthy food as a key culprit.
“I went to our store and took a close look at the prices and I was awestruck. There was a bowl of blueberries, grapes, and cut up strawberries that was 33 dollars. It wasn’t even that big,” says Bland. “Everything that was healthy was super expensive, and everything that contributes to diabetes—like pop, chips, and chocolate bars—was cheap. It seems like those items are subsidized; they don’t increase in price. This is why we’re all destined to become diabetics. The business infrastructure has made the cost of living and eating well far too high. It is a challenge we face as Indigenous people.”
The root causes of the healthy food crisis lie in the legacies of colonization, the residential school system, and racism.
“Our nations were forced to do things in certain ways. The authorities took everything away from us and said ‘this is how you live; this is what you eat’,” says Bland, whose mother was taken away from her home in York Factory when she was five and placed in a residential school near Brandon. “There were times when people couldn’t leave the reserves without permission to get traditional foods and medicines, and we were forced to live with store-bought products that weren’t part of our original societies. Our traditional livelihoods—hunting, trapping, fishing, all the ways that we used to sustain ourselves—were jeopardized.” The effects are still being felt today, with a lack of mental health resources, dietary education, and fitness programs.
Bland recognizes that change—both at the personal level and the systemic level—can be slow and difficult, but sees “flickering lights of hope” when organizations and communities work together to make change. He points to SciMar and its Wellness Transformation Network as potentially important contributors to a transformation in Indigenous health.
“I had the opportunity to meet Mick Lautt (SciMar’s CEO) a while ago,” says Bland. “Mick understands what the real challenges are for Indigenous people, and he’s worked with several Indigenous organizations. SciMar has an understanding of what is actually causing the diabetes aside from food intake.”
SciMar’s novel science points to the hormone hepatalin, which is produced by the liver, as the basis for a new understanding of type 2 diabetes. As a community leader and someone who has personally addressed type 2 diabetes, Bland is learning more about SciMar’s science, its business, and its community outreach.
“There’s definitely hope,” says Bland. “The challenges we face are so great that something like what SciMar is doing could really make a significant change in what’s happening in our communities.”