WINNIPEG - Canada's health minister must apologize on behalf of Health Canada for withholding hand sanitizers from flu-stricken reserves because they contained alcohol, one of Manitoba grand chiefs said Tuesday.
Grand Chief Sydney Garrioch, who represents Manitoba's northern reserves, was responding to reports from an Senate committee meeting in Ottawa.
A representative from the Assembly of First Nations told the committee time was wasted discussing whether it would be appropriate to send the disinfectants to communities battling alcohol addiction.
A representative from Health Canada said First Nation chiefs were involved in the pandemic discussions, including whether to use alcohol-based sanitizers.
But Garrioch said he doesn't know of any consultation and the assumption that hand sanitizers would be abused is offensive to all First Nations people across Canada.
"It's outrageous, the ignorance and possibly some racism, expressed toward First Nation people," Garrioch said. "First Nations leaders and the communities know the intent and uses of hand sanitizers. I don't think our people will be using it for alcohol-related matters."
Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq should formally apologize to all aboriginals on behalf of the bureaucracy, he said.
"There should be an immediate apology issued," Garrioch said.
Yet Chief David Harper of the remote northern Manitoba community of Garden Hill said he initially raised concerns with the government over the idea of one-litre bottles of alcohol-based hand sanitizer being sent to his community.
"We were worried about a tendency to drink that stuff, and we've heard from way back this would be a concern."
The community decided instead to order supplies itself, choosing hand-sanitizing wipes that contained alcohol as well as a type of liquid sanitizer that did not, he said.
A week after those supplies were brought to the community and handed out, 2,500 bottles of government hand sanitizer finally arrived, he said.
"If we're going to fight this pandemic flu, we have to do something. Something has to be done now, and not when a virus has spread over the community, you don't wait for that."
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs says some communities had to wait almost a month before they got the hand sanitizers they needed. Acting Grand Chief Donavan Fontaine said it's outrageous to delay essential supplies to reserves in the middle of a severe flu outbreak.
"There should not have been any delay in getting the supplies to the communities. That is the real issue," Fontaine said in a statement. "If we've learned anything from this outbreak, it's that the federal bureaucracy needs to improve its response time."
Health Canada said in a statement that some communities have concerns about the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers and each community should be considered individually. Alcohol-free hand sanitizers are "currently on back order."
"Health Canada believes it is important to evaluate the issue with First Nations communities in order to determine the best public health approach."
The hand sanitizer issue is just one small symptom of the host of problems facing aboriginal populations in dealing with the virus, said Chief Angus Toulouse, who follows health for the Assembly of First Nations.
More money needs to be put into pandemic planning for First Nations and the government needs to study how recent swine flu outbreaks in Ontario and Manitoba were dealt with before an expected influx of infections this fall, he said.
"There's an expectation that this virus is going to come back at us in a much more stronger and potent kind of form, and that is the biggest concern in First Nations right now."
Manitoba's aboriginal population has been hit hard by swine flu. Of the province's most severe cases, the majority of patients in intensive care have been aboriginal.
Many patients have been airlifted from a cluster of reserves in a remote area 500 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg that has fewer than 10,000 residents.
Aboriginal leaders have said poor living conditions, including cramped housing and lack of clean water, have made some reserves a "breeding ground" for the virus.