Mar 16, 2020
Motivated by family, Jessie is helping
Jessie Newman is Haida, Heiltsuk, and Kwakwaka’wakw,
and grew up in Skidegate, Haida Gwaii. She is the Indigenous Health
Dietitian with the Vancouver Island Health Authority (Island Health).
From a young age, Jessie was aware that both her
great-aunt and grandmother had diabetes, but didn’t have a good understanding
of what that meant for their health, or how it affected them. It seemed like
they weren’t “supposed” to have dessert, which didn’t seem so bad. Both
were the first generation of Indigenous peoples to be living with diabetes, and
as she got older she realized they didn’t understand the full impact that it
had on them.
Clarification of their diabetes was a challenge due to geographic isolation and
racism within the health care system.
“They didn’t know what was happening with their bodies”, shares Jessie, “they
were only told “don’t eat sugar, and take these pills”.
Jessie recalls visiting her great-aunt during her dialysis appointments, and
witnessing her pain and suffering. Over time, her great-aunt lost most of
her vision and had to have a leg amputated.
“These experiences made me want to get into health
care, so I could support Indigenous people living with diabetes. And ideally
prevent diabetes within my generation”, Jessie says.
Jessie completed her internship and graduated from UBC
in 2015 as a Registered Dietitian. She was immediately employed by the
Skidegate Health Centre, who were generous enough to develop a position for
her. During her time there, she created a diabetes support group which was very
successful and well attended. A highlight was preventative education in
elementary and secondary schools that involved diabetes education and cooking.
In 2018, Jessie joined Vancouver Island Health Authority (VIHA) as the
Aboriginal Health Dietitian. She works on northern Vancouver Island with the
Kwakwaka’wakw, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Coast Salish family groups. Her work centres
around diabetes prevention and management, as well as food security and
Indigenous food sovereignty.
As a dietitian, she has the great fortune of attending
Elder group luncheons, teaching in elementary and secondary schools, cooking
with youth groups, and working with the food hubs on the north island to
increase food security. Jessie provides workshops on canning foods,
living with diabetes, and cooking classes. You can learn more about Canning
Foods, Your Guide to Successful Canning here, or by emailing Wellness@fnha.ca.
“A lot of people don’t know how to cook, or think they
don’t like cooking”, shares Jessie, “I try to expose them to new foods, or make
old favorites healthier. But most important, I try to keep things fun”.
“Our foods are the centre of our culture. They have a
huge effect on our identity, as well as our wellness”, adds Jessie.
Most of the Nations she supports have been displaced
from their traditional territories. “The further the community is
displaced from their traditional land, the more difficult their foods are to
access”, Jessie indicates, “and this will impact the health and wellness of the
people and community”.
Her focus has lately been shifting to increasing food
sovereignty in the communities she supports. “Having a strong connection with
our traditional foods and their nutrition can only benefit the wellness of our
This kind of work is very fulfilling - I get to work
with my people. I have family connections all over northern Vancouver Island,
and people are always happy to see me, and I’m happy to see them”. Jessie
shares, “Everyone has been so warm and welcoming, which feels amazing. I know I
am exactly where I should be, doing what I was meant to do”.