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'Healthy minds, healthy hearts': Cree youth tackle diabetes, addiction at conference

The Cree Nation Youth Council teamed up with the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay for this year's winter gathering.

Cree Nation Youth Council delegates creating action plans to fight health issues affecting their communities

Kaitlynn Hester Moses, youth grand chief of the Cree Nation Youth Council, speaks at the council's conference on on health in Nemaska, Que. (CBC News)

Denis Moses says depression, suicide and anxiety are some of the biggest obstacles facing Cree youth right now.

Moses is a youth delegate who is attending the Cree Nation Youth Council's first health conference in Nemaska, Que. this week.

"It's very important what has been discussed, like mental health," said Moses, who is from Eastmain, Que. "It needs to be talked about, so youth know they are not alone. There is help."

Half of the Cree population in Quebec's James Bay region is under 30. People at the conference heard that many have addictions, are overweight and are teen parents.

Last summer, delegates at the youth council's annual assembly decided health should be the focus of their yearly winter gathering. The youth council teamed up with the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay and put together a conference with presentations on topics ranging from intergenerational trauma, to unresolved grief, to living well with diabetes.

"Life is very important," said Youth Grand Chief Kaitlynn Hester Moses, "to move forward in our lives in a healthy way, not just for us, but for future generations to come."

"Let's build healthy minds, healthy hearts, healthy souls and a healthy nation."

People gathered in Nemaska, Que. for the Cree Nation Youth Council conference on health this week. (CBC News)

In her speech to the delegates, Cree health board chairperson Bella Moses Petawabano talked about the deeper causes of today's widespread health issues.

"A range of interconnected factors, often rooted in poverty and cultural displacement, are bringing harm to our people," said Petawabano. "Harm that resonates across generations. The consequences … include domestic disharmony, addictions, mental despair, insecure food [and] housing and unhealthy lifestyles."

Petawabano singled out mental health and diabetes as two of the health board's top priorities relating to young people. In Eeyou Istchee, Que., more than one in four adults has diabetes. Many of them are starting to experience symptoms in their 20s and 30s.

Bella Moses Petawabano, chair of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay, spoke at the Cree Nation Youth Council's first health conference. (CBC News)

"Diabetes doesn't begin in middle age," Petawabano told the crowd. "The groundwork of this disease is laid in youth. So we need to find ways of ensuring that diabetes does not become the devastating time bomb that it has the potential to be."

The young delegates are working on specific action plans to help address four priority areas: diabetes and obesity, addiction, mental health, and teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

They are also encouraged to commit to changing their own habits.

For Denis Moses, that means choosing more nutritious foods — something that's not easy in some remote Cree communities, where fresh fruits and vegetables can be expensive.

"My main focus is healthy eating, so I can maintain my weight," said Moses. "That's the main thing I'm thinking about as an individual."

The youth council's "Building A Healthy Nation" conference runs Feb. 12 to 14.