OTTAWA — The federal government admitted Thursday that it was insensitive to send body bags in a shipment of medical supplies to First Nations communities awaiting help to prepare for the fall flu season.
Meanwhile, officials said the shipment in no way reflected how severely they expected the swine flu virus to hit native communities this fall.
Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, who on Wednesday ordered an investigation into the controversy, followed up Thursday with a statement saying as an aboriginal person she was offended and that what happened was "unacceptable."
"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," said Aglukkaq, who was attending a meeting in Winnipeg with her provincial and territorial counterparts.
In her absence from the House of Commons, other Conservative MPs faced the storm of criticisms levelled by opposition parties.
"What happened was inexcusable. It was unfortunate; it was regrettable; it was incredibly insensitive," said Transport Minister John Baird.
Aglukkaq's statement stopped short of the personal apology that Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff called on the minister to make. But, later in the day her department issued a full-fledged mea culpa and sought to explain why the body bags were sent to communities including the Wasagamack First Nation.
"Health Canada apologizes for the error that was made in the number of body bags that were ordered for the Wasagamack First Nations. We regret the alarm that this incident has caused," said the statement.
Health Canada did not specify what that number was but according to media reports, the reserve, located about 600 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, received at least 30.
Body bags are among the medical supplies Health Canada routinely delivers to the nursing stations on First Nations reserves the statement said, and they are not necessarily related to pandemic preparations being made for aboriginal communities.
The body bag controversy emerged Wednesday when the leaders of several Manitoba First Nations communities, who have been asking the federal government for help to prepare for the fall flu season, reported their shock at receiving post-mortem kits, along with hand sanitizer wipes and masks. The incident set off immediate controversy as the chiefs expressed their outrage and disappointment with the federal government.
It comes after months of tense relations between some aboriginal leaders and the federal government over assistance for pandemic planning. Several reserves in northern Manitoba were hard hit by the pandemic in the spring and leaders have been asking for more health care supplies in anticipation of the fall and winter flu season.
"It is unfortunate that this has been linked exclusively with H1N1," Health Canada said in its statement.
"Whether it's a nursing station in a remote First Nations community in northern Manitoba, or a hospital in downtown Vancouver, supplies are constantly being re-stocked to prepare for unknown and unforeseen events, whether it be a plane crash, environmental disaster or pandemic," it also said.
Jim Wolfe, regional director of Health Canada's First Nations and Inuit Health division for Manitoba, told reporters in Winnipeg on Thursday the department "overestimated" the reserve's requirements and that a review is now being done to ensure other communities are getting the appropriate supplies.
"My apology and our apology is to all First Nations' because this is a sensitive issue," said Wolfe.
He said there is no right or wrong number of body bags to order and that health officials try their best to estimate what is needed based on what's happened previously in the community and what can be expected in the future.
"Clearly in this case, I think, the numbers that we have for Wasagamack were . . . excessive to what we may be needing. We don't know that for sure because there are many unknowns," he said.
Given the uncertainty about how severe the H1N1 pandemic could be in the coming months, and the challenges of delivering supplies to isolated communities, a re-stock of supplies was done for a three-to-four month period, Health Canada said. The number of body bags however, sent to Wasagamack "clearly does not correlate with the current evidence" that the Public Health Agency of Canada has on how severe the swine flu is expected to be in the fall, said the department.
Critics cited reports of a swine flu outbreak on an isolated reserve on Vancouver Island as evidence that the first outbreak of the fall flu season had arrived and they claimed that the government still isn't prepared to deal with it.
The reports stemmed from an article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that said Aboriginal communities on the island, including Ahousat, were experiencing the first major outbreak of the fall flu season. It named one doctor who works in nearby Tofino that said he had treated "dozens" of patients and that most of the cases were mild.
The Vancouver Island Health Authority however, described the article as "inflammatory" and said it didn't report anything new, because health officials had known for weeks about H1N1 cases in remote First Nations communities.
"We have been very transparent," said Dr. Charmaine Enns, a medical health officer with the Vancouver Island Health Authority, at a news conference. "There is no story there."
Instead, the CMAJ has exaggerated the situation, Enns said.
"That increase (in) the level of alarm and anxiety — that is completely unfounded," said Enns.
She estimated that, out of a population of 800 to 1,000 residents, Ahousat may have seen 100 people affected by H1N1 since the pandemic started in the spring.
Only six of those cases were lab-confirmed, and no related deaths have been reported there. Furthermore, Enns said health officials were unaware of anyone currently ill with H1N1 on the reserve.
Meanwhile, it was reported Thursday that Vancouver Island had its first H1N1-related death Wednesday when a First Nations woman from Beecher Bay reserve, near Victoria, died in hospital.
Meanwhile, Thursday at the meeting in Winnipeg, the provincial ministers asked Ottawa to do more to cover the cost of a national H1N1 vaccination program.
Ottawa has already agreed to cover 60 per cent of the cost of the vaccine itself, which runs about $8 a dose. But the provinces are facing costs of another $8 a dose for related costs — transportation, refrigeration, administration.
If the pandemic explodes, the provinces could each be grappling with millions of dollars of extra costs for boosting intensive care beds, staff overtime, new ventilators and dozens of other unexpected needs.
The provinces want Ottawa to treat H1N1 more like a flash flood or earthquake; the federal government covers 90 per cent of the cost of dealing with natural disasters.
With a file from Linda Nguyen of Canwest News Service and the Winnipeg Free Press