Sat, Sep 19, 2009 - Page 7 News List

Aborigines horrified by body bags in flu kit

STOCKING UP:A regional First Nations health official has apologized for the incident and said the body bag supply was a ‘matter of routine business,’ not just for the flu


Health officials ordered an investigation on Thursday into why the Canadian government sent body bags to an Aboriginal reserve in Manitoba after community leaders requested assistance to deal with an expected outbreak of swine flu.

The body bags were sent this week to a remote northern reserve that was hard hit by swine flu last spring. The bags were in a shipment of hand sanitizers and face masks.

Canadian Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said she found the action by Health Canada insensitive and offensive.

“As minister of health and as an Aboriginal, I am offended,” Aglukkaq said in a statement on Thursday. “To all who took offense at what occurred, I want to say that I share your concern and I pledge to get to the bottom of it.”

Jim Wolfe, regional director with the First Nations and Inuit branch of Health Canada, said on Thursday that the bags were part of a shipment intended for reserves to use over the winter and were not linked exclusively to swine flu.

“We really regret the alarm this incident has caused and it was unintended,” Wolfe said. “We order these supplies as a matter of routine business and ... this was part of a very normal restocking process.”

Some critics are demanding the health minister formally apologize for the shipment and have suggested the bags appear to be part of the federal government’s plan to deal with a second wave of the flu.

“I was very disturbed and actually frightened that they’re actually shipping that number of body bags to the communities,” Manitoba Grand Chief Ron Evans said. “I thought they were preparing for what the experts were predicting. That’s the message the communities are receiving.”

The shipment of body bags further strains relations between Aboriginals and the government.

This spring some Aboriginal chiefs demanded an apology after Health Canada delayed a shipment of hand sanitizer to some hard-hit reserves because the cleanser contained alcohol.

Several grand chiefs have also criticized the federal government for not doing enough to prepare Aboriginal communities for an expected resurgence of swine flu this fall, leaving communities scrambling to raise funds for basic supplies.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff told reporters on Thursday that the body bags suggest the government has a grim prognosis for Aboriginals.

“It sends a message, it simply says: ‘We expect Aboriginal Canadians to die,’” he said.

However, Aglukkaq rejected the suggestion.

“Anyone suggesting that our government’s solution to H1N1 is body bags is sensationalizing this situation,” the health minister said.

Aglukkaq was in Winnipeg for a meeting with provincial and territorial health ministers to discuss swine flu.

The Canadian Medical Association Journal reported on Thursday that remote Aboriginal communities on and around Vancouver Island, British Columbia, have been hit by swine flu — the first outbreak so far this fall.

John Armstrong said he’s treated dozens of people infected with the pandemic virus, most of whom have suffered from fairly mild illness.

The largest outbreak occurred at Ahousat, the principal settlement on Flores Island, which is accessible only by water or air.

Last spring, a disproportionate number of Aboriginals in northern Manitoba communities ended up on ventilators in intensive care when the flu first the area. Many patients were airlifted from some northern reserves where there are fewer than 10,000 residents.

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