"There is a big stigma around diabetes in our communities,” said [Paul Linton, assistant director of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay]. “It's seen as a disease for weak people, who if they'd only smarten up wouldn't have it. I know of one case where a husband had been diagnosed for two or three years and never told his wife. He kept his pills in the car, taking them on the way to work and back."
The prevalence of that stigma is why Linton and his colleagues decided to break the silence with a method they already knew to be effective—storytelling.
The health board commissioned a collection of 27 short stories about living with diabetes that would serve as a kind of talking circle in print. Linton turned to Ruth Dyck Fehderau, a University of Alberta creative writing instructor who was working on a novel in the region at the time, to collect the stories and pull them all together.
"Sweet Bloods" is a collection of 27 short stories about Indigenous people living with diabetes in the Cree territory of Eeyou Istchee.
“I was thrilled to be asked, and am overwhelmed with gratitude to be involved with this community project," said Dyck Fehderau. "What they were trying to do is get people talking and correcting misinformation, and encourage people living with diabetes to share how they cope or don't cope."
She flew all over the territory interviewing people of all ages—a 15-year-old star hockey prospect forced out of the game by high blood glucose levels, a man who hunts on one leg after a diabetes-related amputation, a woman who has kept her diabetes under control for 30 years but can’t get her doctor to take her seriously.
Dyck Fehderau considered it her mission to honour everyone she interviewed, writing in a transparent, declarative prose style that aimed to capture the spirit and voice of each storyteller. She made repeated trips back to the storytellers to make sure they were satisfied with her renderings.
Some chose to remain anonymous, signing their stories with tongue-in-cheek pseudonyms like Jennifer Gloria Lowpez, Jennifer Susan Annistin and Sandra Judith Bulluck.
The result, just released, is The Sweet Bloods of Eeyou Istchee: Stories of Diabetes and the James Bay Cree. They are widely varied accounts of resilience and adaptation, says Dyck Fehderau, and yet strike an unmistakable common chord: diabetes in James Bay, as in so many Indigenous communities around the world, cannot be separated from colonization.