Debates of the Senate  
2nd Session, 40th Parliament,Volume 146, Issue 53.
  Thursday, September 17, 2009
Question Period: Health

Government Response to H1N1 Virus in First Nations Communities

Hon. Lillian Eva Dyck: Honourable senators, today, as I walked up to Parliament Hill, I could not help but think about the elders, people and children living in remote First Nations communities in northern Manitoba who were sent body bags by Health Canada. It was a heartless act which dehumanizes First Nations people. What kind of flu pandemic planning is this?

As a First Nations woman and a senator, I was in a state of shock after hearing the news about the body bags. I was overwhelmed with grief. It was as if someone had taken a knife and driven it into my heart. What was the government thinking? How would people feel if they were worried about being infected with H1N1 and they were sent a body bag to help them, indicating that their family was going to die? What kind of message does this send to First Nations people?

In my heart, the body bags send a clear and strong message that the Government of Canada does not care about the health, safety and well-being of First Nations people. Sadly, it suggests the government is leaving them to die.

What is needed is not a message that the government expects them to die. Rather, what is needed are preventative measures.

First Nations communities are faced with limited health infrastructure and resources in place to manage the spread of this pandemic. To get to the core of this situation, we have to recognize that this is more than a health crisis; it is a social disaster.

The shipment of body bags, hand sanitizers and masks is not the solution to the health problems of First Nations. This is about First Nations people having access to clean drinking water, adequate housing, healthy living conditions, and health services and resources. If these basic principles were implemented and available, First Nations people would be better equipped to handle this H1N1 pandemic.

Will the Leader of the Government tell us why Minister Aglukkaq has not apologized? Why were the body bags sent to First Nations communities in northern Manitoba? Have they been sent elsewhere? What plans does the government have to prevent H1N1 in First Nations communities?

Hon. Marjory LeBreton (Leader of the Government and Minister of State (Seniors)): I thank the honourable senator for the question. I can absolutely identify with the feelings that she expressed when news of this became known this morning. It is a very sad situation that this shipment to the nursing stations, which included many other items, as was pointed out, seemed to contain a disproportionate number of body bags. While we have not gotten to the bottom of it yet, it does not matter what the explanation is. This is a very sad situation and I am sure everyone is sorry this has happened.

With the indulgence of the honourable senator, I would like to read into the record the Health Canada press release and statement made today by Minister Aglukkaq, the Minister of Health. As honourable senators know, she is in Winnipeg attending a meeting of the federal, provincial and territorial health ministers. She issued the following statement this morning, which I will be happy to table in both languages later:

For immediate release, from Winnipeg:

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq made the following statement following reports that several body bags had been delivered by Health Canada to a First Nations community in Manitoba:

"During a conference call with First Nations organizations yesterday morning it was brought to my attention that there were reports out of Manitoba that Health Canada had delivered body bags to a remote First Nation community in that province as part of H1N1 preparations for the fall.

"What happened is unacceptable. It was insensitive and offensive. 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. I will make the result of the inquiry public. I will continue to work with First Nations communities and the provinces and territories to ensure all Canadians are informed and protected against H1N1.

"I was born and raised in remote communities and I understand the challenges better than anyone that's why I have met frequently with First Nations organizations. Anyone suggesting that our Government's solution to H1N1 is body bags is sensationalizing this situation.

"There is strong cooperation taking place with First Nations people at the community, regional and national levels, as well as with provinces and territories, to ensure that all Canadians are informed of and protected from the H1N1 flu virus. As Health Minister I am fully committed to these efforts."

Just to summarize for honourable senators, I do believe that, no matter where they live, no matter what walk of life they are from, and no matter what political party they belong to all Canadians know that all levels of government federal, provincial, municipal, and territorial and public health care workers are doing everything possible to prepare all of our communities, no matter where they are, for the potential of the H1N1 pandemic.

Senator Dyck: If the government was so perfectly prepared and if all Canadians were concerned, this would not have happened. It shows a lack of planning. How well can Health Canada be prepared to deal with this when they have sent these packages out? It makes no sense.

Senator LeBreton: Honourable senators, we should wait to see the results of the minister getting to the bottom of this.

From what Dr. Butler-Jones said this morning, supplies are being sent all across the country, but particularly into First Nation health care centres. I do not think it serves any of us to politicize a serious issue like this, dealing with the H1N1 flu pandemic and its implications for all Canadians.

The fact of the matter is this situation happened. Obviously in Winnipeg, Health Canada officials were preparing supplies. We should wait and see exactly what happened and what was actually shipped, in addition to these body bags. Let us remember that all levels of government are working extremely hard.

Only yesterday, Minister Aglukkaq and Dr. Butler-Jones issued the regimen for the distribution of the H1N1 vaccine and the groups that will take priority. I am sure honourable senators have seen the regimen. One of those groups includes those who live in remote, contained communities, many of whom are Aboriginals. Honourable senators, I also wish to point out that in my own caucus, both in this chamber and the House of Commons, are several Aboriginal Canadians, starting with our Minister of Health. I regret that one could think that anyone in government would deliberately do something to offend, cause concern or stress for any group of people, but particularly the peoples of our First Nations far from it.

Minister Aglukkaq has worked with the new National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Shawn Atleo. When I saw him on the noon news I thought Chief Atleo was responsible in making the point that governments and communities must work together to resolve this problem. It is reasonable advice.

This situation is an unhappy and regrettable one for First Nations people, no matter who they are, where they live, what party they may or may not belong to. This issue should not be politicized. This is a serious health issue. The government at all levels is trying to deal with it.

The Minister of Health has received, from all political parties, laudatory comments about how she has stayed on top of this situation. I am particularly proud of her because she is from the North and she understands. The look on her face when she appeared on television should have convinced anyone that she had the same concerns and felt equally as hurt as Senator Dyck.