Health Canada has apologized for sending more than two dozen body bags to a Manitoba First Nation in preparation for a possible swine flu outbreak.
"We regret the alarm that this incident has caused," said a statement issued late Thursday afternoon. "It is important to remember that our nurses are focused entirely on providing primary health-care services under often-trying circumstances."
But the apology only cites the bags sent to the Wasagamack First Nation. Manitoba First Nations chiefs said the bags — which arrived this week with a shipment of hand sanitizers and face masks — also arrived in God's River First Nation.
Earlier Thursday afternoon, Jim Wolfe, director of First Nations and Inuit Health for Manitoba, issued his own apology and took the blame.
He said his department regrets the alarm the shipment has caused in those communities, which were hard hit by the H1N1 flu virus in the spring. Wolfe said the apology goes out to all First Nations in the country, not just those who received the bags.
He said their remote geography was part of the reason he asked nursing stations in those communities to stock up for the winter.
Usually, shipments deliver enough supplies to nursing stations to last for six weeks, he said, adding that this time they shipped a lot more.
Wolfe also said up to 200 body bags were sent to isolated northern reserves. Wasagamack Chief Jerry Knott said his community's nursing station received about 30 of them.
"Given the unknown events that we may facing in the fall, we asked our nursing stations to stock up for three to four months. And unfortunately in this case we overestimated our requirements and that unfortunately caused the alarm we are seeing now," Wolfe said.
"Some of these communities are unreachable by road, water or air during the winter months. In other words, they wouldn't be able to bring these supplies into some of these communities, should they become necessary," Wolfe added.
However, most of the communities are accessible year-round by air in good weather.
Wolfe's apology isn't enough for some native leaders, who are calling for him to resign.
"We find Jim Wolfe has demonstrated incompetence in handling of the H1N1 pandemic in the MKO First Nations," said David Harper, Grand Chief of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), an organization that represents most First Nations communities in northern Manitoba.
Harper also said he is not satisfied with an apology from a bureaucrat and is demanding federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq deliver the apology personally.
"We will accept an apology only by the minister responsible for our well being," he said.
Canada's chief public health officer Dr. David Butler-Jones said Thursday the bags are among the routine materials normally sent to those communities by Health Canada. It's just regrettable they showed up with the flu kits, he said.
"Really, body bags in this context are not necessarily related to the pandemic. Body bags may be part of the supplies of different nursing stations normally," said Butler-Jones, who is in Winnipeg for meetings with Canada's provincial and federal health ministers.
"But for this pandemic, normal supplies should be more than enough because we are not seeing a drastic increase in mortality. It really is unfortunate that these were seen as coming together."
Although officials do not expect a lot of deaths, it's important to plan for the worst-case scenario in a potential flu pandemic, said Butler-Jones, who once had an undertaker as part of a pandemic planning committee.
"We were even looking at where would a temporary morgue be: Would you take the skating rink?" he said.
Manitoba First Nations chiefs said the bags have sent a chilling message to First Nations communities.
"It's frightening our people. It's frightening me as leader. It's frightening me as a grandfather, father, and that's not what we want," said Grand Chief Ron Evans. "[Health Canada officials] have to understand that. We care for our people, love our families, children, grandchildren, and we want to make sure when a pandemic hits, there's medicine for them and people to look after them.
"That's all we want. That's all we're asking for."
Other First Nations leaders said the shipment leaves them feeling rejected by the federal government.
"Is the body bags a statement from Canada that we as First Nations are on our own?" Knott asked.
He flew to Winnipeg with the bags on Wednesday and took them to the Health Canada building on York Avenue.
The office was closed at the time, so he stacked the bags on the doorstep and marked them "Return to Sender."