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Cree Women Embrace A Healthier Lifestyle

By Kelly O’Connor

Originally published in First Nations Drum (Jan 2011)—A new year is the perfect time to turn over a new leaf, and most of us make a resolution to eat right and exercise. This time we mean it. The Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association Fitness & Wellness Program (CWEIA-FWP) is an exciting opportunity for Aboriginal women who want to live a healthier and more active life. Physical activity is a great way to foster wellness as a whole. Exercise can uplift the spirit and clear the mind, as well as improve mobility and overall health. Holly Danyluk, Regional Coordinator for the CWEIA, learned this first hand at a National Women’s Association of Canada conference where she met fitness instructor Theresa Ducharme during a “stress management” exercise break. Holly was impressed, and the two women joined forces to develop an exercise program for CWEIA.The CWEIA is a voice for women within the Cree communities and actively promotes projects to foster the wellbeing and empowerment of women. Women are the backbone of the community, and it’s important that we stand up straight. Women are the heartbeat of hearth and home, so we must keep our hearts and bodies strong. Sometimes, women take upon themselves the weight of the world and end up carrying it around their bellies. In the Cree nation, 21.6% of adults over age 20 have diabetes, and obesity affects nearly half the population (49.1%) particularly women and children. As part of the Health Canada initiative to combat diabetes, the CWEIA wants to incorporate programs that encourage lifestyle changes. Holly and Theresa recognize the potential of women as a catalyst for change. They’re reaching out to Cree women, helping them manifest change in their lives and bring important lessons back to the home, prepare healthier meals, and encourage the family to exercise.

Pilot projects for the CWEIA-FWP were launched in both Chisasibi and Mistissini in August 2010, and the response to the program has been positive and exciting. A growing list of communities in Quebec have embraced the wellness program, including Whapmagoostui, Chisasibi, Wemindji, Eastmain, Waskaganish, Nemaska, Washasibi, Waswanipi, Mistissini, Oujebougoumou, and the urban communities of Senneterre and Chibougamou. CWEIA purchased fitness equipment for each community using grants from local Brighter Futures programs and First Nations, Inuit & Aboriginal Health (a branch of Health Canada). Funding is also provided by the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay. Participants come in all shapes and sizes and range in age from 15 to over 60. “We certainly are making a movement and the women are embracing it,” says Holly. “When Cree women become healthy individuals, it is a matter of time until all communities become healthy places to live.”

At the forefront of this Cree fitness movement, instructor Theresa Ducharme has been busy introducing the program all over Quebec. “Classes for CWEIA are always booked solid in each community,” says Theresa. “It is fantastic to see so many women signing up for the CWEIA Fitness & Wellness Program!” Theresa is a certified personal trainer with a background in choreography. She teaches Pilates and yoga and owns Lemon Cree (her fitness company based in Montreal). Lemon Cree offers personalized fitness services, including fitness training for people who travel. Lemon Cree also has a male fitness specialist trained in team sports who is available to travel to communities. For more information, contact lemoncree[at] or call 514-567-9887.

Theresa hopes the CWEIA program will help Cree women enjoy fitness and understand wellness as a part of preventing diabetes and other diseases. “The goal is to get everyone moving and having fun exercising,” she says. The workout centers around giant inflatable balls called Resist-A-Balls, which are used for Pilates and cardio exercises that help improve core muscle strength and balance. The balls are versatile, easy to use, and suitable for persons of any age, body type, or fitness level. You can watch Theresa and the Resist-A-Balls in action as she motivates participants in upcoming episodes of Living Clean on APTN, a reality TV series from Rezolution Pictures examining health, wellness, and obstacles that sabotage success in the lives of eight Aboriginal people. “I love seeing our brothers and sisters getting physically stronger, which I believe is the gateway to emotional, spiritual, and mental healing,” says Theresa.

CWEIA-FWP classes are held twice each day during the 3-day program. Music gets everyone moving, hand-held weights and stretchy elastic bands are incorporated for strength training, and at the end of the class there is a brief meditation and spirit cleansing. A nutritionist from the Cree Board of Health in each community also speaks to participants about good eating habits and portion control. Once they begin making lifestyle changes, participants are noticing results quickly. “Women are weighed and measured at the beginning of the week and then again before I leave,” Theresa explains. “99% of the women have lost inches and weight by the end of the week! Very exciting!”

Exercises are easy to do at home, but working out together is a lot more fun. According to Holly, the women in Wemindji enjoyed the classes so much they decided to get together and continue on their own. Dorothy Stewart, Community Services Director of Wemindji, said, “The participation of women from the community was absolutely amazing to see. There was so much energy and talk among the women who participated in it. There was also a lot of positive feedback to Theresa while she was here doing the fitness classes.” Turnout for the program was excellent. “We encourage them to continue to empower themselves and thank them for their participation,” said Dorothy.

The goal this year is to have one or two instructors in each community to continue the program. Babbe Jane HappyJack and Lisa Sanipass will be training the ladies in Waswanipi. Sheila Fireman will be the first CWEIA-FWP trainer for Chisasibi. Sheila first learned about the CWEIA Fitness & Wellness Program from her nutritionist. “I had been struggling with weight issues for the last 17 years, so I thought I’d give it a try. I wasn’t expecting much except for some sore arms and legs the next day,” she admits. “To my surprise, this class was different. It was more than I expected, we had the weigh-ins, measurements done and follow-ups, as well as a fitness program to follow.”

The CWEIA Fitness & Wellness Program isn’t just about weight loss and exercise; it’s about restoring balance to a woman’s busy life. A holistic (mind-body-spirit) approach to fitness promotes wellbeing and reduces stress, which in turn encourages a woman to stay healthy and active beyond the time they commit to a workout. “Lemon Cree and CWEIA has been a blessing in my life,” says Sheila. “As a busy mother of four boys, Theresa Ducharme gave me the confidence and motivation that I needed and made me feel like I can do anything. She doesn’t see me through my inequities but believes in what I can do and achieve.”

Through the CWEIA-FWP, Shelia has learned about cardio and strength training, and how it can improve many parts of her life. She has also learned that setbacks are a part of any fitness program, but “It’s just a matter of getting back on track,” she says. “Right now, I’m halfway through achieving my weight loss goals, and Theresa is there to cheer me on through email. I feel great! And I feel so much better than I ever felt in my life. I have more energy now and have a more positive outlook on life. Thank you so much, Theresa, Lemon Cree, and CWEIA! I hope more women out there will benefit from what I have learned from these programs.”

Community wellness is about participation and passing it on. Holly says, “We have a vision to develop these programs in the entire nation to combat diabetes and to empower women to take control of their lives holistically. We are in the beginning stages of this program, and we hope to one day instill in all Cree women to live a healthy lifestyle through exercise and eating the right foods.” Holly hopes to engage the community further in future programs, for example, by bringing in elders to talk about how Cree women lived in the past and to revitalize important coming of age ceremonies and traditional seasonal ceremonies.

Currently, the CWEIA Fitness & Wellness programs are scheduled in communities through March 31st. Health Canada has provided funding for 2011-12, and Holly says part of that funding could finance regional training for CWEIA-FWP instructors. To find out more about the CWEIA Fitness & Wellness Program, check with your local CWEIA president or visit the website