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Beefy chiefs slim down to raise awareness

Grand Chief Doug Kelly, Chair of the First Nations Health Council, pushes his golf clubs on a cart while playing a round at Royalwood Golf Course in Chilliwack, B.C., on Saturday June 15, 2013. Chief Kelly walks the golf course every weekend for exercise.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

There has never been anything quite like the Beefy Chiefs Challenge.

A one-of-a-kind weight loss and reduced waistline competition, complete with prizes, the irreverently named challenge may be one of the best initiatives yet to promote the cause of native health in B.C.

Across the province, chiefs and other leaders are exercising, eating better and revelling in their reduced poundage and shrinking belt sizes.

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"I do feel better," said Shana Manson, a four-term councillor for the Lyackson First Nation on Vancouver Island, who has lost 16 pounds since she signed on for the Beefy Chiefs Challenge. "I can now lift the groceries into the car, instead of asking my husband to help."

Chief David Walkem of the Cook's Ferry Indian Band near Spences Bridge hasn't done quite as well, shedding only 10 of his 273 pounds so far, but he's determined to drop 50 more in the months ahead.

"I'm hoping this type of public awareness, or maybe the humiliation, will keep me going," said Chief Walkem.

The challenge, which is aimed at, but not restricted to, chiefs, was launched in conjunction with the pending landmark transfer of jurisdiction over health care from Ottawa to B.C. natives themselves, the first such switch in Canada.

By publicly improving their own habits, leaders hope to inspire all natives to better wellness and demonstrate the benefits of their health care takeover.

"We want to do things differently," said Grand Chief Doug Kelly, chair of the new First Nations Health Council. "Chiefs love their people, but if we are going to be responsible for them, how are we going to do that if we don't look after ourselves?"

No one has embraced the idea more than Grand Chief Kelly. He got a head start last year and, through increased physical activity and a gluten-free diet, he has now lost a remarkable 65 pounds.

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"People tell me I look 20 years younger. So apparently, I used to be a 73-year-old fat boy." The veteran native leader said he's searching for a personal trainer to help him slim even further.

The province's deputy health officer, Evan Adams of the Sliammon First Nation, hailed use of the term "Beefy Chiefs," prompted by a phrase in a Globe and Mail article earlier this year.

"Everybody knows they need to take care of themselves, but this is a new way of saying that. It's not mean or judgmental, it's funny. It's fun," said Dr. Adams.

"That's way better than having someone wagging their finger at you. And I love the fact it's a contest. We haven't seen anything like this before."

The challenge has taken off. There are already more than 140 participants, and federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq may soon be among them.

"It's inspiring to see [those leaders] who are willing to lead by example when it comes to getting and staying healthy," said Ms. Aglukkaq, in an e-mail. "I've asked the chiefs to send me more information, so I can consider taking part. Other leaders across Canada may want to have a look, too."

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While the challenge has its humorous element, no one denies the severity of the problem.

Statistically, B.C.'s native population is beset by diabetes, obesity and other examples of poor health that result in significantly shorter life expectancy than other groups.

Native leaders are often in the same boat, hampered by their own lifestyle, stress and responsibilities.

Ms. Manson said she used to be an active kickboxer, but thanks to too many muffins and doughnuts at too many meetings, plus no exercise, she began to pack on the pounds. "Trouble is, we're all a bunch of workaholics, and it's hard to get access to the foods we once ate."

Grand Chief Kelly said he used to order so many takeout quarter-pounders, he became proficient at steering with his left knee to prevent them from leaking.

"Stress is a killer. A sedentary lifestyle is a killer. A constant diet of fast food is a killer," he said. "But we don't have to live less than anyone else. It's all 100-per-cent preventable. What it requires is a new way of looking at health, at wellness, at our work. We need to be the role models for our communities."

Amid some grumbling from leaner chiefs that they don't stand a chance against their paunchier counterparts, prizes totalling $50,000, divided among five regions, will be awarded to those who lose the most weight and inches from their waistline by the end of October.

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