OTTAWA -- Northern Manitoba First Nations chiefs 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 First Nations reported receiving body bags in shipments from Health Canada Tuesday. The shipments also included hand sanitizer and face masks.
"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. Gods River received 20 of them. Garden Hill and St. Theresa Point also had body bags in their supply shipments but hadn't counted them.
Harper said RCMP on the reserves normally 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 the health minister's office Wednesday morning but had heard nothing from her by late afternoon.
Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said she learned about the body bags in a conference call with First Nations leaders Wednesday morning.
She said she was very concerned by the reports and had asked the deputy minister of health to conduct an investigation.
"It is very disturbing," said Aglukkaq.
She said she didn't know anything about it, 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."
Manitoba MP and NDP health critic Judy Wasylycia-Leis was incredulous.
"This is a government that won't send flu kits to these reserves but they send body bags instead," she said. "It's the ultimate expression of incompetence."
Wasylycia-Leis asked the health committee Wednesday to order Aglukkaq to investigate. She said people are already worried, particularly in communities like St. Theresa Point and Garden Hill, which were hit hard by H1N1 in the spring.
To send them body bags now is an ominous message, she said.
"We find this absolutely abhorrent."
Liberal aboriginal affairs critic Todd Russell said in June, 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 purchase flu kits that would have included preventative and treatment options like 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."
There have been 889 reported cases of H1N1 in Manitoba to date, including 221 hospitalizations, 42 of which were patients who ended up in intensive care. Seven Manitobans have died. Manitoba Health reported 327 of the reported cases were patients who are of aboriginal descent, living both on and off reserve. First Nations patients accounted for 30 per cent of the intensive care unit patients.
Nationally, First Nations patients account for 17 per cent of the hospitalized cases, 15.2 per cent of patients who ended up in intensive care and 11.3 per cent of the deaths.