I started my journey with Women Warriors on June 8th, 2015 at the Lloydminster Friendship Centre. I was inspired to start this group after training for a half marathon for Team Diabetes, in honour of my birth father’s type II diabetes diagnosis, and witnessing that there were few Indigenous women at the gyms that I trained. Being Metis and witnessing the health issues of my family, and my own emotional journey of obesity from childhood to early adulthood was my why. I knew the despair of hating my body and wanting to make healthy lifestyle changes, but not knowing where to start, or being intimidated to walk into a gym.
My introduction to the reality of Indigenous people’s health, other than my family’s history, started with reading statistics about type II diabetes on the Diabetes Canada website, “Diabetes rates are three to five times higher among Aboriginal adults than the non-Aboriginal population. High rates of diabetes among Aboriginal people are attributed to many factors, including genetic predisposition, decreased physical activity, increased obesity and dietary changes from traditional unprocessed food to high-calorie processed foods, among others” (2012).
I recall reading this Globe and Mail article that alerted me to the disproportionate rate of type II diabetes and the serious health implications this meant for Indigenous women:
“Over all, the incidence (the frequency of development of diabetes in a population over a given time period) and the prevalence (the number of people currently suffering from the disease) were both about four times higher among aboriginal women and 2.5 times higher among aboriginal men” (2010). Furthermore the article states, “the age of onset has serious implications; diabetes is one of the principal causes of blindness, amputations, kidney failure and heart disease.”
My early focus of the 8 Weeks to Healthy Living Program was type II diabetes awareness and prevention. Our first group I met Ashley, the longest attending participant of the program. She had received an unexpected type II diabetes diagnosis, and the diabetes nurse referred her to our group; she was exactly who I had hoped to help by starting this program. I also had the privilege of getting to know nine other ladies that joined, sometimes with their children because it was summer vacation. It was the beginning of an amazing journey of growth and inspiration for me.
Over the course of six month, I worked with Dr. Wicklum to obtain funding – we received an Alberta Government Recreation and Physical Activity grant starting 2016 and continued 2017. It was an incredible gift to be able to offer free fitness classes and nutrition education to the women of this community. I’ve met at least 100 women in this community through the program. I am grateful for the women that have attended the program; given me support and thanks, and that have referred others to attend. I now know a large group of women from Onion Lake Cree Nation, and I’m grateful that you welcomed me, an outsider, to your community of strong, and resilient Indigenous women. In particular, I’m grateful for my friendship with Trysta, my #1 supporter, the first featured Woman Warrior Wednesday and a great promoter of the program to her friends and family!
I’ve also had incredible opportunities through Women Warriors to travel including a trip to Montreal to the Girls Action Foundation conference, and many other conferences and events that have helped me build an amazing network. I’ve been blessed with many new friends and supportive followers. Big thanks to my friend, Stephanie Harpe that has supported me from the day we met in Cold Lake at the Indigenous Women’s Traditional Gathering and who brings light everywhere she travels.
I want to acknowledge the support of the fitness instructors and business owners in Lloydminster. Many of the instructors that taught the first session including, Tiff Soleil, owner of Oasis Hot Yoga Studio, Jo Tickowsky, owner of Muscles & More Bodybuilding & Health Supplements, instructors Sue Garand, and Kim Kutz have been in attendance at every session – 8 in total. Also, special thanks to the instructors that joined us when they could including Jennifer MacEwan, owner of Even Star Fitness, Jenna Noble, Priscilla Smith, Rita Ermine, Erika Schroder, Priscilla, Brandy-Lee Maxie, Leah Tolcher, Chasity Dougan, and Emmy Lou Wicker.
Also, thank you to executive director of the Lloyd Native Friendship Centre, Bonnie Start for the free space and support with the RPAD grant, Alicia Oliver that helped me with nutrition education at the beginning of this program, Mallory Clarkson that helped me with social media and posters, (free of charge and out of the goodness of her heart), the Prairie North Health Region diabetes educator, Connie Brausse and nutritionist, Helen Rogers, and RN Jennifer Workman and Courtney Koch, and Lloyd PCN dieticians, Jillian Nault and Heather Reid, and Shoppers Drug Mart pharmacist, Aaron Lyons. Also, my next door neighbour, Christy that I wrangled into all kinds of volunteer activities for this program and supported me with her excellent excel spreadsheet skills.
In addition, when I held Rise Up Mighty Warriors I had the support of many organizations in Lloydminster including Lakeland College, the Interval Home, the Lloydminster Health Foundation, FCSS Lloydminster and the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority. Also, to my speakers that generously donated their time for a small honorarium or gift including Stephanie Harpe, Brandy-Lee Maxie, and Marcia Mirasty.
As you can see, this program was reliant on the help of many incredible community members, the majority of whom are women. I am forever grateful that they helped me bring Women Warriors to this community.
Finally, I want to acknowledge the role of the University of Calgary in creating this program. It was the dedication and hard work of Dr. Sonja Wicklum that allowed this program to exist. She was a tremendous support and believer in this program from its inception. She has a special place in my heart from supporting me when we had zero funds to encouraging me to go back to university. Also, to researchers Dr. Rita Henderson, a guiding light for me, and a great advisor for navigating academia, and Dr. Lindsay Crowshoe, the lead researcher and brilliant Indigenous academic that has many obligations and responsibilities and made time for this project. Also, thanks to our Master’s student, Megan that moved here for eight weeks because she was dedicated to immersing herself in the program.
When you read about Indigenous women, whom continue to endure the poorest socioeconomic and health status of all Canadians, it’s an overwhelming picture of despair. Their social determinants of health (SDH) are stark in comparison to the majority of Canadians. For clarity, the World Health Organization defines social determinants of health as, “the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age. These circumstances are shaped by the distribution of money, power and resources at global, national and local levels. The social determinants of health are mostly responsible for health inequities – the unfair and avoidable differences in health status seen within and between countries.”
This report prepared by the Native Women’s Association of Canada, Submission to the World Health Organization’s Commission on the Social Determinants of Health (2007) states:
The poor health status of the Aboriginal women due to inequities in SDH in Canada is quite well documented. For example, in 2001 the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada noted these include, “lower quality housing, poorer physical environment, lower educational levels, lower socioeconomic status, fewer employment opportunities and weaker community women are at higher risk for alcohol and substance abuse, mental illness, suicide, diabetes (including gestational diabetes), cervical cancer, as well as more frequently experience deleterious circumstances such as poverty, alarmingly high rates of spousal, sexual and other violence, inability to access safe, secure, affordable, non- discriminatory housing for themselves and their families (on- and off-reserve, in rural, remote and urban settings), and barriers and lack of access to higher education, job training, employment, entrepreneurial loans and investments, and related socioeconomic. (p. 5)
What I know from doing health promotion for two years with Women Warriors, is that Indigenous women are in desperate need of Indigenous focused and culturally relevant health programming. If you build it, they will come. Public health funds need to be invested in health prevention and health promotion, which are hard-to-find funding dollars.
One of my participants, Cheryl pointed out that I have no alphabet soup after my name, which allowed me to navigate this space without expectation or the participants feeling intimidated. I believe that health promotion programs, like Women Warriors, benefit from being run by community members. Health professionals should train community lay people like me – a mom, a Metis woman, and a concerned community member – to run programs. It helped that I was not part of an institution like the health care system or social services because my participants knew I did not want anything from them, except for their step count and regular attendance. It allowed them to feel safe. There are very few spaces in our society where Indigenous women feel safe. In my opinion, the most important aspect of this program was creating a culturally safe space for women to relieve stress, form connections and socialize, and learn about health, without fear of being judged or an expectation of results.
The two most significant barriers for attendance were childcare and transportation. Most of the participants had at least two or more children and lacked reliable transportation. What I suggest, if you decide to start a health promotions program in your community, is to offer free rides and allow children to attend. When we held our classes in Jack Kemp gym there was enough space for kids to run around and play, and moms to exercise. I believe it’s important for kids to see their moms engaged in exercise and taking care of themselves. Sometimes the kids participated and had fun – I liked creating a family environment in the program and I missed the kids when we changed locations to Motion Fitness, where children were not allowed.
My last class as facilitator ended on November 29th and I’m currently enrolled in Athabasca University to finish my Bachelor of Arts degree (11 courses to completion). It is through my research experience with the University of Calgary, my practical knowledge about Indigenous women’s health gained through facilitation, and the inspiration and strength that I drew from all the participants, that I am planning on pursuing a Masters in Public Health.
I am still driven by the same motive that I started with – helping as many Indigenous women as possible to learn about and implement good health practices in their lives – but now I have a larger vision. There is a need for health prevention and promotion programs that cater to Indigenous women’s needs. In January I’m taking my first research methodologies course and I’m focusing on tobacco reduction within Indigenous populations, which is another area that I identified as lacking in Indigenous-specific programming.
I’ve had many people help me on this path. I offer my sincerest thanks and I’m letting you know, what you’ve done has made a difference in Indigenous women’s lives. Not only the participants, but also my own. I have great hopes of continuing on this path and making significant contributions to the health of Indigenous women. I refuse to listen to naysayers and realists, the people that spew their pessimism everywhere because they’re too lazy to take action or too scarred that they will fail – that big dreams are possible. I started off small, ten women and I enrolled people to help me because I was passionate about this project, and unwilling to take “no” for an answer. I have learned one of the most important lessons in life from Women Warrior: Give freely of yourself, without expectation of anything in return, and a thousand gifts will come your way.
Merry Christmas everyone!
**I have no news to share about the program moving to Onion Lake. I will post any information I recieve on the facebook group.