September 18, 2009
Chiefs furious after Ottawa sends dozens of body bags to flu-stricken reserves, By Chinta Puxley, The Canadian Press, Wed., Sept 16, 2009
WINNIPEG - Aboriginal leaders in Manitoba say they are horrified and want an explanation as to why some of the reserves hardest hit by swine flu in the spring have just received dozens of body bags from Health Canada.
Chiefs say the body bags - which were in a shipment of hand sanitizers and face masks - were sent to a cluster of remote northern reserves where dozens of patients were airlifted to hospital in the spring.
"If this is preparedness, they're sending the wrong message to our communities. Who would do such a thing?" Grand Chief David Harper, who represents Manitoba's northern First Nations, asked Wednesday.
"It's like sending body bags to Afghanistan for our soldiers. We've been asking for proper health institutions, proper health equipment. Instead, what do we get? Body bags. That's totally unacceptable."
Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said at a flu briefing in Ottawa that she was disturbed when she heard body bags had been sent to some aboriginal communities.
"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 all Canadians are informed and protected against H1N1," she said.
Aglukkaq said she found out about the body bags during a conference call with aboriginal leaders, but couldn't explain why they have been sent to some reserves. "Once I have more information I can speak to that," she said. "But right now I'm asking the same questions you're asking me."
David Butler-Jones, Canada's chief public health officer, said the body bags were unnecessary. "As the minister said, it's being looked into," he said. "But it's a totally unnecessary thing."
The shipment of at least 50 bags, which some interpreted as a grim prediction from the government, further strains relations between First Nations and Ottawa.
This spring some chiefs demanded an apology after Health Canada delayed a shipment of hand sanitizer to some hard-hit reserves because the sanitizers contained alcohol.
Several grand chiefs have also criticized the federal government for not doing enough to prepare First Nations for an expected resurgence of swine flu this fall, leaving communities to raise funds for basic supplies.
A disproportionate number of aboriginals in northern Manitoba communities ended up on ventilators in intensive care when the flu first hit last spring. Many patients were airlifted from some northern First Nations reserves where there are fewer than 10,000 residents.
First Nations are already feeling uneasy about the second coming of H1N1 without receiving body bags from Health Canada, Harper said.
"There is something strange going on here," he said. "All along, we've said Canada's not prepared. They're still not prepared. That's the wrong signal that they're sending."
Chief David McDougall, of St. Theresa Point First Nation, said his community's nursing station received a shipment of supplies but he hasn't seen any body bags yet. He said the ones sent to his neighbouring reserves are an "ominous sign that the government is predicting a grim outcome."
While he said they need to accept that some people might succumb to the flu this fall, sending body bags before the leaves have turned is a bit premature.
"A lot of other things should be done prior to shipping these - vaccinations or some sort of concrete plan," McDougall said. "To just out of the blue send a bunch of body bags, I was flabbergasted."
Political critics jumped on the news, slamming the federal government for its lack of flu preparedness.
Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett said the situation in northern Manitoba reserves is dire. The government is telling communities that people will die rather focusing on flu prevention, she said.
"It's just shocking," Bennett said. "We've been asking for flu kits, we've been asking to make sure they're on the priority list in terms of vaccinations, to make sure the antivirals are in place - and we get body bags. It's appalling."
New Democrat MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis said she's demanding an immediate investigation into the government's "callous, insensitive and incompetent" handling of swine flu preparations on First Nation reserves.
She said the government delayed sending hand sanitizers to communities and won't sponsor flu kits, but is prepared to send body bags.
"We find this absolutely abhorrent and repugnant," she said. "I think it just reflects a much deeper-rooted problem that Health Canada has in terms of recognizing the serious nature of H1N1 on reserves."
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