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Leona Aglukkaq, Federal Minister of Health, announces an investment by the Government of Canada of $135 million for new construction and the renovation of health services infrastructure in First Nations communities across Canada, Tuesday, September 1, 2009, in Winnipeg.

JOHN WOODS

A "disproportionately" large number of body bags were sent to a remote Manitoba reserve last month, Canada's Health Minister says, but a probe has found no sign of "ill will."

Leona Aglukkaq said Wednesday that an investigation into the incident by Health Canada's deputy minister has led to stricter controls around the procurement process of body bags and a review of ordering protocols at nursing stations in native communities as part of regular site visits.

"It was a clear over-estimation and there was no evidence of ill will or deliberate calculation," Ms. Aglukkaq said in a conference call.

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Tensions flared last month when a remote Manitoba reserve received a shipment of body bags from Health Canada, a dire prediction, leaders said, of what Ottawa expects will happen during this flu season.

The Wasagamack First Nation, 600 kilometres north of Winnipeg, received 38 body bags. The postmortem kits contained a polyethylene body bag, chin strap, tie straps and identification tags.

The investigation found that nursing stations were advised by senior officials to order supplies "generously" in preparation for a second wave of the H1N1 flu pandemic.

"It was within this environment that the Nurse in Charge (NIC) for Wasagamack operated. Orders were placed by the NIC for generous amounts of various supplies. The order for 100 body bags by the Wasagamack nursing station (of which 38 were delivered), was disproportionately high in comparison to quantities in nursing stations across the country," the Health Canada report says.

Most nursing stations stock less than 10 bags.

The report also found that there was no shipment of body bags to God's River First Nation, despite native leaders there saying they received 20 body bags.

When news of the body bags rippled through remote communities of less than 1,000 people, it shocked residents and added to native leaders' distrust of the federal government's efforts to help them prepare for a resurgence of the swine flu virus.

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The mild flu outbreak in the spring erupted into a full-blown crisis on several of Manitoba's remote reserves. At one point, two-thirds of all Manitoba flu patients on respirators were aboriginal. Health Canada came under fire for hesitating to send hand sanitizer to native towns because of concerns that people would ingest the alcohol-based gel.

Native leaders have insisted that they are among the least prepared for another wave of the flu virus. In Manitoba, they have taken it upon themselves to supply remote homes with flu kits, which includes masks, gloves and soap.

But the federal government has said that nursing stations in native communities are well-equipped to deal with a resurgence of H1N1 this fall.

Ms. Aglukkaq said Wednesday that she was satisfied with the report's findings.

"I am confident that everything possible has been done to ensure that will not happen again," she said.

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About the Author
Education Reporter

Caroline Alphonso is an education reporter for The Globe and Mail. More

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