n mid-September many rural Manitoba Aboriginal communities were shocked and horrified when they opened their packages of supplies to combat the H1N1 virus sent to them by the federal government.
The packages had hand sanitizers, masks, gloves and a series of body bags that contained full post-mortem kits that included a chin strap, five tie-straps and three identification tags.
The implication was only too clear: for remote reserve communities where access to health care is poor, overcrowding is common and poverty is rampant, death is imminent amidst an H1N1 outbreak.
Aboriginal leaders across the province were outraged as not only was the extra cargo unexpected, in their eyes it was an insult. Many of the bags were rejected by the communities.
In the wake of this, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo signed a new agreement with the federal government to ensure proper communication between the province, Ottawa and the communities so that this situation would not repeat itself but what does that mean?
According to Grand Chief Ron Evans of the Association of Manitoba Chiefs, communication was the key to the situation and consequently what led to the body bags being sent to the remote nursing stations. He said that though they are not normally sent to remote communities in such large quantities, they are sometimes sent despite the fact that they are usually delivered to police and fire stations.
Though he is glad to see that a protocol to ensure that there is communication between the remote communities and both governments has happened, he is also unsure what effect it will have. In his mind, the effects “remain to be seen.”
The federal government has the Canadian Pandemic Influenza Plan for the Health Sector under which they developed Annex B: the Influenza Pandemic Planning Considerations in On Reserve First Nations Communities. Annex B defines the exact procedures to follow in the case of any crisis from a halt in water delivery to communities where there is no potable water to what to do in the case of a mass fatality.
Getting the plan to work is an entirely different issue however.
“A plan is a plan, but it is only there as a plan. In order for the plan to be effective it needs to be implemented. In order to implement the plan you need resources and the communities just did not have the resources to implement their plan,” said Evans.
The body-bag incident was not the first time where Manitoba Aboriginal communities were let down by the federal government. Last spring Health Canada delayed sending hand sanitizers to the community for fear that Aboriginals would drink them due to their alcohol content.
Though sanitizers have been sent out since then, according to Evans, many communities are still lacking in supplies. Under the new communications protocol, they can at least communicate their needs more efficiently.
Since the mid-September scandal Evans said that he has been communicating directly with Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, who has ordered an inquiry into the incident. Though he feels that the situation is getting better, Evans is still hesitant to believe that the 63 communities he represents will get the same care as the rest of the province.
“There should be no jurisdictional restrictions, it should be health care to the people first and foremost and then the jurisdictional issues can be sorted out later in terms of who is responsible for which fiscal resources,” said Evans.
What he is more concerned with now is that his communities receive the H1N1 influenza vaccine as soon as it becomes available.
Dr. Kim Barker, a Public Health Advisor for the Assembly of First Nations, knows the scenario all too well having witnessed the government’s failures when it comes to Canada’s Aboriginals.
“I think that all of the problems that we have always advocated for in terms of poor access to health care, poor access to proper living conditions and social determinants of health have finally shown to be absolutely critical in being able to manage an outbreak to this extent,” said Barker.
The advocacy, she said, always seems to fall on deaf ears and this is how the situation seems to perpetuate itself.
While she cited reserve poverty, poor living conditions and substandard education as major factors when it came to the impact that H1N1 has on many remote reserves, Barker said that both the federal government and the Canadian public are at fault for perpetuating this.
“I think we need to blame Canadian society at large for not recognizing the needs of the First Peoples of this country have and honouring the treaties to make sure that these needs are properly met. As Canadians don’t care, it means that politicians are not on the line for making sure that those types of policies are at the forefront of their agendas,” said Barker.