BC First Nations Wellness Champion: Jessie Newman from Skidegate, Haida Gwaii

Mar 16, 2020

Motivated by family, Jessie is helping others.

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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).

Inspired to support others through a family history of chronic illness.

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.

Becoming a nutritionist and eellness c​hampion

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”.

The relationship between food and community

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“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 people.”

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”.

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