Tuesday, September 22, 2009

This is what cultural insensitivity looks like

Native leaders reject apology for body bag blunder
Chiefs demand resignation of Health Canada official after kits were shipped to northern Manitoba as flu-fighting supplies
PATRICK WHITE, WINNIPEG — From Friday's Globe and Mail, Last updated on Saturday, Sep. 19, 2009 03:09AM EDT

Despite a rare Health Canada apology, first nations leaders demanded the resignation of a high-ranking ministry official yesterday after a bungle in which hundreds of body bags were shipped to northern Manitoba communities as flu-fighting supplies.

Postmortem kits - each containing a polyethylene body bag, chin strap, tie straps and identification tags - started arriving at remote nursing stations this week by the dozen. Upwards of 200 bags were shipped throughout remote reserves in northern Manitoba. One community alone - Wasagamack First Nation, 600 kilometres north of Winnipeg - received 30.

Horrified chiefs returned many of the bags to Health Canada on Wednesday, calling them an affront toward aboriginal values that say preparing for death is akin to tempting fate.

"It was insulting," said David Harper, Grand Chief of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents 30 northern aboriginal communities. "Body bags may be part of flu preparations, but so is medications. Why do we get body bags before we get medication?"

In a surprising move yesterday, a high-ranking Health Canada official offered an apology for the shipments. "We regret the alarm caused by the stocking of this particular item," said Jim Wolfe, regional director for the ministry's First Nations and Inuit Health Branch. "Our apology is to all first nations."

Mr. Wolfe explained that the shipment was part of a "routine" but "excessive" restocking of nursing stations. "In this case, we overestimated," he said. "It's unfortunate that this has been linked exclusively with H1N1. 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 restocked to prepare for unknown and unforeseen events, whether it be a plane crash, environmental disaster or pandemic."

Native leaders rejected the explanation and the apology yesterday before calling on Mr. Wolfe to resign. "The people in our nursing stations are telling us they have never seen a body bag shipment, so there's nothing routine about this," Mr. Harper said. "We do not accept his apology. We have seen these mistakes time and again. He has to go."

While Mr. Wolfe issued a ministerial apology, his boss did not share the sentiment. Attending a conference with provincial and territorial health ministers in Winnipeg, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said she was troubled by the body bag delivery, but flatly refused to apologize.

"It's disturbing to me and I want to get to the bottom of it," she said. "Whether this was routine or not, I don't know."

She has asked her deputy minister to investigate the matter and promised to make the results public.

Until an apology comes directly from the minister's lips, native leaders say they cannot accept it. "It should be made by the minister herself," said Ron Evans, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. "It's under her watch. She has to take responsibility."

The mild flu outbreak in spring erupted into a full-blown disaster on many aboriginal reserves in the country. At one point, two-thirds of all Manitoba flu patients on respirators were aboriginal, and aboriginal leaders were clamouring for supplies to fight the virus. With many experts forecasting a fall resurgence of the illness, some chiefs expect the worst is yet to come.

"To send 30 bags to one community is enough to frighten us all," Mr. Evans said. "Not just first nations."

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