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Don't forget the body bags

This Wednesday, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced an investigation into the delivery of dozens of body bags to remote communities in northern Manitoba.

This Wednesday, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced an investigation into the delivery of dozens of body bags to remote communities in northern Manitoba. Chiefs from at least four First Nations had contacted the federal minister to express their outrage that Health Canada had included the bags in a shipment of medical supplies to communities hard-hit by the H1N1 virus.

Sending body bags as part of a strategy to deal with an epidemic is, as Chief David Harper of the Garden Hill First Nation puts it, “very insensitive,” but the sad truth is that the flu will probably kill people in the North this winter. Crowded and substandard housing in most aboriginal communities makes widespread infection almost a certainty. A lack of running water makes the recommended regular hand washings a lot less likely.

Particularly offensive is the fact that Health Canada spent time, resources and aircraft space on the means to carry out the dead, when they might have been helping to keep people alive by shipping face masks, Tylenol and hand cleanser. Those are some of the things that would have been in the flu readiness kits that the same Health Canada refused to fund this summer. Aglukkaq dismissed opposition questions on the matter by questioning whether soap was a federal responsibility.

Aglukkaq raises the question at the centre of the issue. To what extent is Canada responsible for the health, safety and well-being of aboriginal people, especially those in remote communities with little economic opportunity? Or to rephrase the question, what do we owe the impoverished villages of the North? Where is the limit of our debt? If they need soap, is that our problem?

This past summer Stephen Harper came to the North to grandstand about defending Canada’s sovereignty. He glad-handed soldiers and grinned for the cameras against a backdrop of Arctic beauty and gleaming military hardware. No doubt about it, Canada stands on guard for the thawing Northwest Passage and all its bounty of natural resources.

Canada’s sovereignty derives from the sovereignty of our aboriginal people. As a colonial nation we have made agreements with the original owners to permit us to occupy their land. We may not always have bargained fairly, we may not have honoured our commitments, but if we had never cut deals we would have no basis on which to defend our claim. In addition, aboriginal people maintain our sovereignty by occupying the remote parts of Canada where few others would choose to live. Their presence does more to establish Canada’s claim to the land than any military base can ever do.

So picture for a moment a Canadian Forces base in the remote North. The soldiers live crowded together in substandard housing without running water. The water they haul from the river has to be boiled and their toilets are pit privies, out back. They face shortages of medical supplies, and their infant mortality rate is four times the national average. Is this an acceptable way to treat the men and women who defend our country?

Of course there is no such CFB in all of Canada. It would be unthinkable to treat our soldiers like that. So why is it thinkable in aboriginal communities? According to Grand Chief Ron Evans, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs is “continually stonewalled by tight-fisted financial decisions that ignore the crown’s fiduciary responsibility for health care.” Why?

Tight financial times are no excuse, there’s always money for priorities. So why aren’t housing and health care in aboriginal communities a priority? Why, when we know from past experience that they’re much more likely to suffer a fatal epidemic than other parts of the country, aren’t places like Garden Hill given the kind of priority attention we would give to nonnative, urban, southern communities in the same danger?

In May, Stephen Harper told a news conference in Toronto that Canada is doing “everything that is necessary to deal with this (H1N1) situation at this time.”

Maybe so, if you live in Toronto. If you’re in northern Manitoba, you might have to settle for body bags.

Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.