Health Canada Apologizes For Sending Body Bags To Native Communities

By Frank Larue

The Wasagamack and God’s River First Nations in Manitoba received body bags in H1N1 Kits received from the Ministry of Health and Welfare. The kits also contained facemasks and hand sanitizer, and the body bags seemed like a precautionary measure, in case the H1N1 flu might spread and leave a wake of death in its path. Fortunately, the flu hasn’t turned into a plague among First Nations, but sending body bags without any official request is probably one of the most insensitive things the government has done in years. After finally making it a priority to arrange for vaccinations against H1N1, the body bags arrive before the flu shots.

Jim Wolfe, Manitoba’s regional director of the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch of Health Canada has egg all over his face, and tried to explain how this happened. At a press conference in Ottawa on September 18th, he said the bags were intended for reserves to use over the winter and were not linked exclusively to H1N1. “We really regret the alarm this incident has caused, and it was unintended,” Wolfe said. “Some of these communities are unreachable by road, water, or air during the winter months. In other words, they wouldn’t be able to bring these supplies into some of these communities should they become necessary.”

The government department supported Wolfe, telling the media this was only business as usual: “Health Canada delivers services in remote areas through nursing stations. We routinely stock commonly required medical materials such as personal protective equipment, pharmaceuticals, and other medical supplies such as body bags.” Any link with H1N1 was unintentional, according to Health Canada. “Whether it’s a nursing station in a remote First Nations community in northern Manitoba or a hospital in Vancouver, supplies are constantly being restocked to prepare for unknown and unforeseen events, whether it be a plane crash, environmental disaster, or pandemic,” they stated.

Their explanation and forced apology didn’t make much of an impression with Manitoba Grand Chief David Harper who told the Star Phoenix, “It really makes me wonder if health officials know something we don’t… I make a plea to the people of Canada to work with us to ensure the lowest fatalities from this monster virus. Don’t send us body bags. Help us organize, send us medicine.” Chief Harper was infuriated over the action and called for Jim Wolfe’s resignation as well as an apology from Leona, the Minister of Health & Welfare.

The Minister, who had accused the media of “sensationalizing” the story, was quick to offer her regrets to Chief Harper and the Manitoba First Nations. “It was insensitive and offensive,” she admitted. “As minister of health and as an Aboriginal, I am offended. To all who took offence at what occurred, I want to say that I share your concern, and I pledge to get to the bottom of it. I have ordered my deputy minister to conduct a thorough and immediate inquiry into the situation.” Minister Aglukkaq then promised to make the result of the inquiry public.

There are grave doubts whether Leona Aglukkaq will fire Jim Wolfe, and the report she promised is unlikely to be released until next spring. By then, tempers will have cooled and the impact of the action will be old news. Shawn Atleo, newly elected chief of the AFN, was not amused by Health & Welfare’s gauche attempt at reconciliation. While attending a conference in Halifax, he said, “At the core and crux—and I’d look to legal experts to consider this notion—Canada has yet to recognize our peoples in a fundamental way. We still have policy being done to us and for us in isolation of our First Nation government leaders. Whether we’re talking about issues of health or issues of the fishery and economic prosperity in our community, we need to break this pattern whereby governments are doing things for us.”