With no diabetes treatment options on his reserve, one student takes to the road to raise awareness.
By Jesse Mintz
Caleb Saulteaux has come a long way.
Physically, he’s traversed much of a Manitoba. Emotionally, the 15-year-old carries the weight of his community on his shoulders.
A testament to the span of his journey: one day, he’s sitting in his classroom on the Birdtail Sioux First Nation reserve in western Manitoba, the next he’s sharing his story with 15,000 people in Winnipeg at WE Day. Separating the two moments is 350 kilometers of Trans-Canada Highway—for Caleb, though, he’s covered far more ground on the “road” to WE Day.
Over the course of several days in August and July, he ran along nearly 500 kilometers of rural Manitoban roads, passing vast open fields under vast empty skies, cutting in and out of small towns and First Nation reserves. He pushed on, through rain and heat—though exhausted—all to raise awareness around the impact of diabetes on his community, in particular, the effect the disease has had on his beloved grandmother.
To celebrate what he’d accomplished, and to further his goal, he added a stop at WE Day Manitoba—a stadium-sized empowerment event celebrating change-makers—to his journey. Here he shared the stage with icons and activists, who, like him, were there to share their story.
As the principal of Caleb’s school, Mike Gamblin’s plans hinge on facilitating experiences like this for students. Mike wants the young people at Chan Kagha Otina Dakota Wayawa Tipi School to see beyond themselves and their community, to give back and by doing so, enrich their own lives.
Standing on one of the reserve’s highest points, the educator lays out his vision for me. The view sets the scene: the Assiniboine River snakes through a green valley far below. Farmlands are visible in the distance with neighbouring railroad tracks cutting a straight line in both directions. When Mike begins to speak, his praise for this community matches the earnest beauty of the landscape.
Originally from Cranberry Portage, 500 kilometers north of the reserve, he came here to work at a local school and found a new home. Even while he talks about the pain Birdtail Sioux First Nation has faced in recent years—with spiking violence and addiction—he is hopeful and energetic.
Back behind his desk at the 140-student nursery-to-Grade 12 school that he’s led for over a decade, he’s quick to trumpet the causes of his optimism: students like Caleb.
Mike has known Caleb for most of the 15-year-old’s life, and when he speaks of him, it’s with the natural warmth of a friend. “I remember Caleb in Grade 1, in my office,” he says, rocking back in his chair, gesturing at the photos of students on the walls. “He shared a lot of childhood stories with me. Some not so great… but some great ones too.”
The “not so great stories” refer to a time before Caleb moved in with his grandmother and grandfather. Caleb shared some of those memories with me the evening before WE Day Manitoba, using thinly veiled language. He said it was a time of uncertainty, surrounded by substance abuse and fighting. Now safe and secure, Caleb has come to count on the love his grandparents.
That love inspired him to help others.
Like many on the reserve—and even more Indigenous people across Canada where Type 2 diabetes rates have ballooned, with eight in 10 at risk—Caleb’s grandmother, who he calls his kunshi, has diabetes. According to Mike, nearly everyone in the community has a family member or friend living with the disease.
Thirty kilometers north of the nearest town, the rural reserve doesn’t have diabetes treatment options. For those with a car, dialysis is available in Brandon, Manitoba, but that means driving 90 minutes each way, three times a week for a four-hour dialysis session. By week’s end, that adds up to 21 hours spent driving or in treatment—21 hours away from family and community.
Caleb’s grandmother has been making this trek for over 20 years. One winter afternoon, her car broke down and Caleb found her crying, distraught she’d miss her appointment. He told her not to cry; it would work out in the end. While consoling her, his mind raced and settled on what he really wanted: for his grandmother to receive dialysis in their community.
“I asked myself, what can I do [to help],” he explained to me. A natural athlete, he decided on running to raise awareness and dollars that would go towards buying a dialysis machine for the reserve. “I wanted to make a difference, no matter how hard it was for me.”
He told his grandparents the plan, then his friends and teachers, and eventually the community Elders. He was going to run the 130 kilometers to Brandon.
Waking up early to a breakfast of bacon and eggs, he set off down a quiet pasture-lined stretch of Highway 83 in the dark on a July morning last summer. With a friend at his side, his coach cycling behind them and his grandparents following with snacks and water in their truck, it took two days to make it along the Trans-Canada Highway to Brandon. Caleb recalls the emotion that motivated him to push forward. “Every time I looked [at my kunshi] in the truck, I felt good about what I’m doing, that’s what made me continue.”
Then there’s the catharsis running offers. “I didn’t have a good life growing up. I grew up around drugs and alcohol, around violence,” he says. “Running takes away everything. It makes me feel good inside, fills my head with only positives and reminds me that I’m doing good.”
Since finishing that first run—arriving to cheers at the treatment facility his grandmother frequents—Caleb has racked up another 400 kilometers, running to neighboring communities and First Nations reserves. He’s spoken at Pow Wows and been honoured with Star Blankets from Elders in recognition of his work. “The Elders talk, the community talks, they’re all proud of him,” Mike enthuses. “But that’s not why Caleb is doing it. He runs so other people can stay [home to receive treatment].”
The boy that Mike remembers in his office all those years ago wouldn’t have done this. He wouldn’t have reached out to Elders for their support, contacted neighbouring communities to get them on board, raised awareness among his friends, collected donations from community members or put in the long hours on the road.
Today, everything Caleb is proves what a powerful youth he’s grown into. He is driven by a singular vision to help others—one that stems from feeling supported and valued, as Mike indicates.
It’s a story the Chan Kagha Otina Dakota Wayawa Tipi principal has seen play out with other students: support translates into accomplishments. The pitfalls of addiction and violence are avoided through community initiative—through giving back and getting involved with WE. Take Caleb’s classmates, who spent afternoons and weekends picking up litter around the community and collecting food hampers to donate to Elders and neighbours in need to earn their way to WE Day. That’s what WE Day offers, Mike explains, an opportunity to show students the potential within them and to remind them—throughout the course of one inspiring day—that as young leaders, they can have an impact on and off the reserve.