Commentary | An apology is not enough

Last week, Health Canada sent a large shipment of body bags as part of a “routine restocking” of medical supplies on Native reserves hit hard by the H1N1 flu. This accident, frightening and insulting to many Native leaders, is more than just an isolated incident – misunderstanding or not, it’s an addition to the long history of mistreatment of First Nations people in Canada.

From colonization to the building of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, the Canadian government has consistently abused Native peoples. In the last century alone, residential schools, the last of which closed in 1996, took Native children from their families, submitting them to various forms of psychological, sexual, and physical abuse – all in the framework of a federally-funded program. The conditions in these schools were enough to warrant an apology from Prime Minister Stephen Harper last year, who called these institutions “a sad chapter in our history.”

The difficulties caused by H1N1 are affecting communities already beset by endemic health problems that are part of the enduring legacy of this history of abuse: crowded conditions, poor health facilities, an HIV rate three times that of the rest of the Canadian population, and epidemic suicide rates.

Health care services in Native communities don’t do enough to redress these problems. In recent years, Health Canada has significantly reduced the Non-Insured Health Benefits program, which provides essentials like medication, dental supplies, and mental health counselling to reserves. Native leaders have long struggled with the program’s chronic funding problems and bureaucracy, and recent events point to a trend of containment measures, rather than preventive care – health issues are only addressed when matters become dire.

If the federal government wishes to make amends for this neglect, changes must be made. Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said, “Anyone suggesting that our government’s solution to H1N1 is body bags is sensationalizing the situation.” We suggest she prove it. Canada was months behind the United States and Europe in developing a priority list for the delivery of the H1N1 vaccine, despite having the highest rate of infections per capita in the world at the time. And though H1N1 was spreading rapidly in Native communities this spring, it took the body bag incident to spark communication between the government and Native peoples. Health Canada officials may be tripping over themselves to apologize for the gaffe, but Native communities have been criticizing governmental inaction since June. At one point, Health Canada even withheld hand sanitizer from “dry” reserves out of fears that Natives would ingest the alcohol-based gel.

Health Minister Aglukkaq must own up to her mistakes. Her initial explanation was inadequate and dishonest: she accounted for only the delivery of body bags to “a remote First Nations community,” when the bags were delivered to at least four communities. All too often, the mainstream media lets the government off the hook in such cases – two days after their first scathing article about the shipments, the Globe and Mail normalized the situation by referring to the incident as a merely “confusing episode” and “a headache.”

It is the government’s responsibility to direct resources where they’re most needed when an epidemic breaks out. Given our country’s historic role in the economic, social, and cultural marginalization of Native communities, the government’s obligation to them is even greater. The recent events in Manitoba should provide impetus to address the continued, systemic disenfranchisement of Natives in Canada. Health Canada must provide the vaccine it has promised, but suicide, drug abuse, and violence will continue to plague reserves. These problems pose as much of a threat to aboriginal peoples as any epidemic. It should not take a public embarrassment of this magnitude to get our attention.

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