Manitoba First Nations outraged over H1N1 body-bag shipments
2009-09-17 0:00

By Mia Rabson |

First Nations (Native American) chiefs in northern Manitoba, Canada, say Health Canada sent an ominous message to their reserves this week when dozens of body bags were included in shipments of medical supplies for H1N1 influenza.

At least four reserves in Manitoba reported they received body bags in shipments from Health Canada on Tuesday. The shipments also included hand sanitizer and face masks.

Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said Wednesday she's ordered an investigation into the "disturbing" reports of body-bag shipments to First Nations communities hit hard by the H1N1 flu.

"This says to me they've given up," said Garden Hill Chief David Harper.

Harper said Wasagamack First Nation counted at least 30 body bags in a shipment of supplies sent to the nursing station. God's River received 20 of them. Garden Hill and St. Theresa Point also had body bags in their supply shipments, but hadn't counted them.

The communities are about 600 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.

"This is an ominous sign that the government is predicting a grim outcome," said Chief David McDougall of St. Theresa Point First Nation.

Normally, Harper said, the RCMP on the reserves get a few body bags, but the nursing station does not. He said the workers who unpacked the boxes were shocked when they saw the bags.

"It's very insensitive," said Harper. "It's like sending body bags to soldiers in Afghanistan."

Harper said he contacted Aglukkaq's office Wednesday morning, but had heard nothing from her by late afternoon.

Aglukkaq said she learned about the body bags in a conference call with First Nations leaders Wednesday morning.

"I have ordered my deputy minister to conduct a thorough and immediate inquiry into the situation, and I will continue to work with First Nations, provinces and territories to ensure that all Canadians are informed and protected against H1N1," she said.

She said she did not know anything about the body-bag shipment, including whether or not Health Canada was actually behind it.

"Once I have more information, I can speak to that," she said. "Right now, I'm asking the same questions you are."

The federal government, which is responsible for health care on First Nations, has faced sustained criticism over its response to flu outbreaks on the reserves this spring.

Calling a swine-flu outbreak in their communities a "pending atrocity," three chiefs from northern Manitoba travelled to Ottawa in June to demand a meeting with the federal health and Indian affairs ministers.

The chiefs said their fly-in communities were more vulnerable to an outbreak, partly because many overcrowded houses do not have access to running water.

With at least 100 people diagnosed with flu this spring across seven northern communities, the chiefs said they were also facing a shortage of medical personnel and supplies, including hand sanitizers.

"It really makes me wonder if health officials know something we don't," said Harper. "Don't send us body bags. Help us organize. Send us medicine."

Chief Jerry Knott added: "Is the shipment of the body bags part of Canada's preparedness plan for all Canadians? Is the body bags a statement from Canada that we as First Nations are on our own?"

Manitoba MP and NDP health critic Judy Wasylycia-Leis called the shipment "the ultimate expression of incompetence."

"This is a government that won't send flu kits to these reserves, but they send body bags, instead," she said. "We find this absolutely abhorrent."

Liberal aboriginal affairs critic Todd Russell said in June that Garden Hill and St. Theresa Point waited weeks for Health Canada to debate what type of hand sanitizer to send. Over the summer, Health Canada denied the reserves financial assistance to send flu kits for residents on reserve, which would have included preventive and treatment options such as face masks and Tylenol.

"Now in September, after First Nations have been pleading with the government to put plans in place, day after day, week after week, month after month, what is Minister Aglukkaq's response for preventiveness when it comes to H1N1?" said Russell. "What is the Health Department's response? To send body bags into First Nations communities. It is unacceptable. It is unbelievable that that is the response."

Nationally, First Nations patients account for 17 per cent of the hospitalized cases of H1N1, 15.2 per cent of patients who ended up in intensive care, and 11.3 per cent of the deaths.

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