Body Bags Instead of Prevention
In September, the Wasagamack First Nation and God’s River First Nation in Manitoba were shocked to find that the H1N1 preparation kits that Health Canada had sent to them contained about 30 body bags with hand sanitizer and face masks. Health Canada’s investigation into the matter tried to downplay the shipment on miscommunication and claimed it was only isolated to one community, denying the physical evidence from the other. Besides sending a morbid message through the shipment of body bags to Native people looking for prevention, Health Canada had stalled the shipping of hand sanitizers beforehand to remote reserves on the grounds that they contained alcohol and might be ingested by Natives desperate for a drink.
Identified as one of the ‘at risk’ groups for catching the H1N1 influenza, many Native communities had put pressure on Ottawa to provide them with a means of combating what could end up being a pandemic among reservations and Native people across the country. This was the government response.
Neglect and Mistrust
There is good reason for Native people in Canada to be suspicious of the government’s response to this recent influenza. Beyond the body bags is plain old history. The amount of diseases and epidemics that decimated the Indigenous population of what is now Canada since Europeans first arrived amounts to a holocaust. This is aside from the direct wars that were waged against them. The colonial powers, and eventually the government of Canada don’t have a positive mark on their record throughout this whole period.
Colonization introduced smallpox, cholera, tuberculosis, measles and the bubonic plague to Native people and because they never had any previous exposure to them they had no immunity to fight against the foreign diseases. In many cases, entire villages were wiped out.
In 1918, the Spanish flu reduced Native people in Canada to around 100,000 people; the lowest population in history. It wiped through Okak, Labrador, where 204 out of the 263 community members died within a year of contracting it. It decimated the community of Hebron, Newfoundland where 86 out of 100 people died. Native people were 9 times more likely than non-Natives to contract the flu, and the complete lack of healthcare facilities available to them in their communities left them feeling betrayed by the same government that was trying to impose another culture and set of values on them through the residential schools. Because tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases were contracted in these schools and most Native people lived in crowded conditions, they were the best spreading ground for the flu. Often, Native communities were abandoned to bury their own dead relatives, if they had the strength to do it.
There is substance to the feeling of abandonment. The federal and provincial governments have been, since the very creation of Canada, in a perpetual game of ‘pass the buck’ when it comes to the well-being of Native people. The British North America Act, which united Canada as a single country (they didn’t think to consult the Indigenous people) declared “Indians and lands reserved for Indians” were a federal responsibility; however, within that same act healthcare was declared a provincial responsibility. So, while Ottawa tried to offload on to the provinces, and they offload back, the impact can only be felt in Native communities who suffer from the neglect of proper healthcare and well-being. The most significant part of any pandemic or health issue facing Indigenous people in Canada is government response and accountability, which ultimately shows how much it values Natives’ lives.
Let’s fast forward to 2005. The Cree community of Kashechewan in Northern Ontario is evacuated, many of them sent to shelters and relatives homes in Southern cities. Many are hospitalized. What happened? Many living in Kashechewan, a community of 1,900 people and plagued by unemployment and neglected living conditions, started getting sick. After tests were made in October 2005, E. Coli was discovered coming through the water treatment plant that Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) had constructed for the community, downstream from a sewage lagoon. When a heavy dose of chlorine was added to clean the community water supply, scores of people developed more sicknesses, impetigo and scabies from chlorine contamination. It made international news and brought out from under the rug Canada’s hidden shame. Indian Affairs Minister, Andy Scott, first offered the community more bottled water, and they were advised to keep boiling their water, like they had been doing on and off for years as they were under a boil-water advisory. Canadian Forces then sent the same water purification treatment unit that it uses in disaster zones like Kashmir and Sri Lanka. After the back-and-forth between the Ontario and federal governments, half the community was airlifted for treatment out of town. Today, the problem of safe drinking water in Kashechewan is as present as their problems of flooding and moldy homes.
So, what’s the worry?
So, why are so many Native communities being affected by this pandemic? The majority of them suffer from overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. They also lack the basic infrastructure for prevention of the spread of diseases. Many are on a boil-water advisory and struggle for clean, drinkable water. It’s not pretty for the Canadian public who don’t live there, but third world living conditions are commonplace for Native communities in this country. Viruses, like the H1N1, spread most easily in these conditions.
The 2006 Aboriginal People’s Survey found that 31% of Inuit in Canada live in crowded homes, compared to 3% of the total population of the country. That number jumps even higher in Inuit communities in Northern Canada, to 41%. Statistics from other Native communities show the same patterns, with many homes in disrepair. The World Health Organization (WHO) has stressed that there is a link between the severity of influenza cases and pre-existing chronic diseases, living in poor and overcrowded housing, poor-quality drinking water and sub-standard healthcare.
In June, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) noted that the measures aimed at containing the virus were not suited to the social realities of First Nations. ‘For example, being told to avoid contact with others while living in cramped and overcrowded conditions or being told to wash their hands frequently when running water was not available,’ the AFN said.
Accountability and Dignity
There really is no way that Native people can continue along this path. Through taking the land and resources from Indigenous people, and denying them their self-determination, Canada has created third world countries within itself. It is very aware of this and refused to sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.
Who should claim responsibility for the last 250 years of suffering of Native people? Did diabetes among Indigenous people exist before contact, before the reservation system and residential schools? Given the history of neglect and current inaction, the government of Canada does not deserve trust to deal with Indigenous people fairly, especially when it comes to health and well-being.
Healthcare is a right to all people in Canada, but a priority needs to be placed on those most vulnerable as a result of Canada’s capitalist and colonial system. Proper healthcare facilities in every Indigenous community, a special budget allocated to deal with specific health issues facing Native people are the most basic and immediate and rights that all people in Canada need to demand from the government of Canada. The self-determination of Indigenous nations, the stealing of land and resources, the colonial meddling in Native people’s affairs are part of this process.
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