OTTAWA -- First Nations chiefs in Manitoba called on the provincial and federal governments to declare a state of emergency on Wednesday because of the spread of swine flu on reserves and the lag time in responding to it.
“With the H1N1 virus spreading rapidly through the communities and supplies taking nearly a month to be delivered, the First Nations people are at too much risk for this situation to continue any longer,” Ron Evans, the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said in a statement. “We’ve had enough.”
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs issued the plea for more help after meeting in Winnipeg and said there is a “rising sense of worry” about the looming fall flu season.
The request for a state of emergency comes on the heels of controversial testimony that was heard on Tuesday at a Senate committee in Ottawa that was studying the spread of the human swine flu virus, also called H1N1, among Aboriginal Canadians.
Hundreds of people began showing flu-like symptoms in May in St. Theresa Point, where the first confirmed case of swine flu on a reserve was detected in June and it soon spread to neighbouring Garden Hill First Nation. Both are remote fly-in communities about 600 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. A disproportionate number of Aboriginal Peoples make up the severe number of cases among Manitobans and the cramped living conditions, lack of running water in some cases, and high incidence of chronic illness are thought to be factors in the spread of disease on reserves.
Anne-Marie Robinson, assistant deputy minister of Health Canada’s First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, told the committee that discussions took place between chiefs and public health officials about sending alcohol-based products into communities with addiction problems because there have been “rare” cases where it has been problematic. Some commonly used hand sanitizer products can contain upward of 60 per cent alcohol. Ms. Robinson would not disclose which reserves had been involved in the discussions and never linked the talks with the “difficulty” she acknowledged was experienced in getting hand sanitizer to some of the chiefs who had asked for it.
“It is partially racism and partly ignorance,” Grand Chief Sydney Garrioch, the representative for Manitoba’s northern reserves, said Wednesday. “I want to make sure that an apology comes forward from the minister of health on behalf of her department as well as the bureaucrats.”
Garden Hill Chief David Harper is also looking for an apology and explanation.
Because more than half of the homes in the community of 4,000 do not have running water and people cannot wash their hands frequently with soap and water as a preventive measure, hand sanitizer was in high demand.
Chief Harper said he waited for more than two weeks for hand sanitizer and other supplies to arrive, by which point he already had purchased $15,000 worth of merchandise.
“Nobody said anything about why there was a hold back,” said Chief Harper. Although he was one of the chiefs who had asked for hand sanitizer, concerns were never raised with him about their alcohol content by federal officials.
“They could have called us, they could have let us know they had a concern on this,” said Chief Harper. “But what I think personally is, they weren’t even ready. I know for a fact they weren’t ready because nothing kicked in right away.”
Chief Harper said he has heard before of people ingesting hand sanitizer to get intoxicated and that his own band council talked about the alcohol-based products because Garden Hill is a dry reserve where alcohol isn’t allowed. He said they quickly identified alternative products and there’s no excuse for the delay in getting supplies to Garden Hill when so many people were getting sick.
A shipment of 2,500 bottles of sanitizer did arrive in GardenHill last week from the federal government -- they were alcohol-based. Some has been distributed to families and some of the stock is being kept at the school and a police station.
According to Health Canada, once the decision to send hand sanitizer to northern Manitoba reserves was made, it was received in a timely manner. In an e-mail response to a request for an interview, the department said the decision was made in concert with provincial health authorities and First Nations leadership.
“Given the logistical challenges inherent to identifying sufficient sources of supply for hand sanitizer, as well as making arrangements for these shipments to be delivered to remote communities, Health Canada ensured delivery in timely manner,” the response stated.
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