An Aboriginal business that brings health and fitness classes to remote First Nations is expanding its service in northern Ontario.

Theresa Ducharme, who is Metis, founded Lemon Cree in Montreal in 2010 as a part-time business. Her enterprise teaches people how to exercise, shop for healthy food and cook wholesome meals.

"It's a very big demand, especially in our communities,” she said.

“We're dealing with diabetes and heart disease and depression and obesity. And I have a solution. And it's exercise." 

She said she put a few proposals together for the James Bay Cree communities in Quebec, and was hired to work in all 10 communities.

"I was expecting one or two. I didn't expect all 10. It's amazing, in four and a half years, the fitness craze that has hit the north. I love seeing everybody being aware and talking about fitness," Ducharme said.

"There's more things that happen besides fitness.  People will privately come up to me and tell me ...they've been dealing with depression but they feel better. People are sleeping better."

'I need new clothes now'

Community members in Webequie agree.

The health director for the First Nation, located more than 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, brought Lemon Cree to the community and has been taking the classes for the past month.

webequie community members

In the First Nations community of Webequie, located more than 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, residents take part in a healthy eating class facilitated by Lemon Cree. (Simon van der Maaten)

"The difficulty I was having was high blood pressure, and I know for sure that one way of dealing with high blood pressure is to watch what I eat, exercise more,” Jeff Jacob said.

Jacob said he's already noticed he can walk farther than he used to.

"I lost a few inches around my body. I need new clothes now.”

Ducharme and her team have made two trips to Webequie so far.

They teach two-hour fitness classes in the evening. During the day, Ducharme's son-in-law, Simon van der Maaten, a chef,  teaches healthy cooking classes and holds walk-abouts in the Northern Store.

"They go through labels and they read labels and he talks about good food versus bad food and how to recognize it," she said.

By next year, Ducharme hopes to train Webequie community members to continue the program on their own. She said there might also be an exercise class specifically for youth.

Connecting mind, body, spirit

Ducharme became interested in fitness when she started swimming at age 10. She continued to stay in shape as a teenager when she started working as a model.

Theresa Ducharme

Theresa Ducharme, who is Metis, became interested in fitness when she started swimming at age 10. She continued to stay in shape as a teenager when she started working as a model. (Simon van der Maaten)

After recovering from an illness in 2006, she said, she felt she had an opportunity to make a fresh start in life, so she pursued a certificate in fitness.

At the time, Ducharme was working for the Native Women's Association of Canada and was part of the Sisters in Spirit team working with the families of missing and murdered Aboriginal Women. 

"The stress that was happening to all of us as a team — I personally went through seven teams. We were just dropping like flies," she said.

"So I went up to the executive director at the time and I said 'you know we're not doing well.  We're in a crisis.  We're not healthy.  We're fighting our physical [bodies]. We're not eating right because we're so stressed, we're so sad, we're so depressed of what was happening around us.'  So I said, 'Can I introduce fitness at lunchtime to help us?'  And our director said, 'Absolutely.'" 

For two years, she said, the team went to a friendship centre at lunch to exercise.

"That's where I got to practise on everybody," she said.    

"I really wanted everyone to understand the connection of mind, body and spirit. If our body wasn't well our mind wasn't going to be well.  And if we're spiritually not feeling good about ourselves and everything around us, everything goes down."

Webequie group fitness

An instructor with Lemon Cree teaches two-hour fitness classes in the evening in the remote community of Webequie. (Simon van der Maaten)

She said the women began to feel stronger and healthier, morale improved, and they were better able to problem solve.

"I just knew that I had to be in that role more," she said.

Watching a community like Webequie embrace a healthier lifestyle has been rewarding, Ducharme said. The community is already keeping fit during the weeks when she's not there.

“When we were leaving, in the morning I saw people out there jogging," she said.

"As I'm looking out the window I just had this big grin on my face."