The Grand Council of the Crees

Banquet Address by Grand Chief Dr. Ted Moses


Posted: 2001-01-22

Ladies and Gentlemen: On behalf of the Grand Council of the Crees I welcome you to Eeyou Istchee. This afternoon, at the dedication and opening of the hemodialysis unit, I spoke of the significance of the need for dialysis in the context of the changes that Cree society has encountered. Tonight, with a little bit more time, I want to explain the connection between the need for these medical procedures and the sudden changes in the Cree way of life.

Today's establishment of a hemodialysis unit at the Chibougamou hospital is important in its own right. It means that the people who live in this region of Quebec -- Crees, other First Nations People, and the non-native population -- will now have access for the first time to hemodialysis services that can be performed in and near their own communities. It means that these individuals will no longer need to travel to Val d'Or or live in Montreal to obtain dialysis. They will no long need to leave their own communities and families to obtain this vital lifesaving procedure.

For ten years, our people have had to leave their homes and families, and move to Montreal -- actually take up permanent residence there -- in order to obtain dialysis treatment. Dialysis is ordinarily performed three times a week, requiring about three to five hours for a session. These Crees lives were arranged to have access to this treatment, and it meant that they had to forsake their communities in order to survive -- all because the treatment was not available in our region.

Of course I am pleased that today we have a centre that can perform this vital treatment. But why should we have had to struggle to obtain this service in our region when we are in the midst of a diabetes epidemic and have such an urgent need to treat so many people? It simply does not make sense. Dialysis is not a luxury; it is an only means of survival.

Today, because of the work of the Cree Youth Council and the Cree Board of Health and Social Services and all of those individuals and organizations that supported and contributed to the walk across Eeyou Istchee, and all of those Crees who dedicated their time and their lives to raise funding for the new dialysis machine, the dialysis centre has been established. Because of their effort to walk across Eeyou Istchee to publicize the need for a dialysis unit in this region; and because of their persistence and hope and courage in crossing our land to seek donations to fund this project, they have been able to raise $344,000 to make the establishment of this unit possible.

While we welcome the establishment of this hemodialysis unit, it is important for people to understand the real cost to the Cree Nation that this unit represents.

Back in 1975, when the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement was signed, there were only three (3) Crees diagnosed with diabetes in all of the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee. The La Grande Hydro-electric project had not yet been completed, and the Cree People were still living as we always had, living on the land for our sustenance. Eeyou Istchee gave us the best food in the world, and because of this, diabetes was a rare disease among the Crees. We had no need for hemodialysis machines. Diabetes was practically unheard of.

To some people this may sound like superstition or some kind of mystical connection between disease and the land. But I assure you it is not. There is a verifiable scientific relationship between our normal, healthy Cree diet, and our susceptibility to diabetes.

We Crees have survived for thousands of years in Eeyou Istchee. During that time we have encountered climate change, changes in animal populations, and starvation. But we survived because the Crees adapted to this life over thousands of years, both genetically, and spiritually. We know how to survive on the land, and our bodies are healthy when we eat our own food.

Then Hydro-Quebec came to Eeyou Istchee and built the dams. Suddenly, our lives were changed -- age old patterns of life and survival were disrupted. Wildlife was no longer so plentiful, the animals retreated from the roads, highways, and hydro-camps. The patterns of the rivers were disrupted, and wetlands were destroyed. Trusted and dependable food sources were wiped out or diminished. The animal's habitats were destroyed.

But this was not all. We learned that our lakes had become poisoned with methyl mercury, which leeches out of the ground and vegetation when land is unnaturally flooded by dams and dykes. Hydro-Quebec had not predicted this poisoning of the water. The mercury in the ground, which is normally insoluble, converts to a soluble organic form which is absorbed by fish and other wildlife. When this mercury enters the human body, it causes well documented neurological damage.

The fish that we had always relied upon as a major food source could no longer be safely eaten. We had to tell our people not to eat the fish.

With the financial assistance of Hydro-Quebec, we engaged in an information programme of forced dietary change. We had to tell our people "Stop eating the fish". That was the message, and our people turned to store bought food, and fast food, and a diet that our systems could not tolerate. And that was the beginning of the diabetes epidemic.

Hydro-Quebec spent millions of dollars on a mercury programme. We had to stop eating a basic part of our normal healthy diet. Fish, we always said was one of the first foods a Cree child ate, and it was one of the last foods that our elders ate late in their lives when nothing else could be eaten. Yet, we could no longer eat it.

But look at the devastating effect it has had. Now, instead of three cases of diabetes in Eeyou Istchee, we have over 800 diagnosed cases of diabetes, and the number is climbing.

Today, we have one machine. In just a few more years, if this is situation is not corrected, we will need ten machines. We spent millions of dollars trying to correct the mercury poisoning of our waters. Now, only a tiny fraction of that amount is being spent to fight the terrible mortality of this disease brought about through the sudden elimination of our people's means of subsistence on the land.

Real changes have been forced upon the Cree way of life through hydro-electric development and forestry operations. Perhaps the opening of this hemodialysis centre will help people to understand that when we Crees speak of our attachment to the land we are not being poetic. Our attachment is real, and it has real physical effects. Those effects have come back to us with a real and terrible cost to our people. Today's dedication of this centre, has been paid for by our people with our lives as well as with the funds that we have raised. We hope that the machine is a temporary solution.

Diabetes has come to the Cree Nation suddenly and profoundly. It is sweeping through our communities affecting both the old and the young. We must return to our natural diet, or die of this disease.

Dialysis as you know is not a cure, it is a stop-gap. It prolongs life; but anyone on a dialysis machine can not expect to live long.

I want to thank Hydro-Quebec for its $10,000 contribution to this centre. I want to thank everyone who made a contribution or who encouraged others to contribute. In particular, I want to thank the Minister of Health, the Honourable Pauline Marois, for her cooperation and the support of her Department in making this centre a reality. Her understanding is the issues we confront here has been very important in the realization of this important project. Her willingness to address other issues concerning Cree health will soon make it possible for the Cree Board of Health and Social Services to place greater emphasis on preventive health. This, obviously, is where we have to go.

Congratulations to Youth Grand Chief Ashley Iserhoff for his very successful fundraising efforts. He has done an imaginative and fantastic job, achieving an enormous outpouring of support from the Cree youth, from the elders and from the trappers. Great leadership Ashley.

I want to congratulate Mr. Bertie Wapachee, Chairman of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services, and Mr. James Bobbish the Director General of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services. These individuals have worked hard to bring this project into existence. They have also been working to improve the level and scope of services that the Cree Board of Health and Social Services can provide.

I also want to extend the appreciation of the Cree Nation to Mr. Jules Pelletier, Director General de la Sante de la Baie James for his work on Cree health, and to Mr. Michel Letourneau our MNA for his work on our behalf. Thank you everyone.