TORONTO — The specter of 1918, when Spanish flu claimed millions of lives around the world, looms especially large over Canada’s aboriginal communities.
Back then, the deadly influenza virus wiped out entire aboriginal villages, killing 90 percent of residents in some places. Now, health officials fear history might repeat itself.
The World Health Organization’s acting assistant director-general, Keiji Fukuda, has raised the alarm over “a disproportionate number of serious cases” of swine flu occurring in Canada's aboriginal communities. And the federal government is accused of being slow to respond.
A Senate hearing this week investigated complaints that the government failed to deliver flu masks, hand sanitizer and respirators — items it is obliged to supply under Canada’s pandemic protocol — as the effects of the H1N1 virus in aboriginal communities worsened.
On Tuesday, Canadian health officials acknowledged that they hesitated in sending critically needed hand sanitizer — which contain up to 70 percent alcohol — for fear that some people would end up drinking the gel.
“It’s outrageous,” Kim Barker, public health adviser to the Assembly of First Nations, told the Senate committee.
Aboriginal people in the provinces of Manitoba and Ontario have been hardest hit.
At the Sandy Lake community in northern Ontario, 135 members of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation have been treated for swine flu. The nation’s grand chief is calling on the provincial and federal governments to treat all at-risk residents with the antiviral drug Tamiflu before the virus ravages the 2,500 people in his remote community, which isn’t accessible by road. Some have already been evacuated for treatment.
In northern Manitoba, two native towns — Garden Hill and St. Theresa Point — are in the grips of the influenza. Dozens have been evacuated for treatment. Throughout the province, 31 flu patients have been placed on respirators — two-thirds of them are aboriginal. The member of Parliament for northern Manitoba, Niki Ashton, has called the situation “a national disgrace.”
On Wednesday, Manitoba's aboriginal leaders declared a state of emergency in their communities because of swine flu. So far, 458 people in Manitoba have been infected. More than one quarter of those cases are from remote northern communities, where many aboriginal people live.
At last count, more than 5,700 people in Canada were infected with swine flu. Twenty have died.
Infectious disease experts say genetic disposition might be a factor in the rapid spread of swine flu among aboriginal Canadians. But all agree that pitiful living and social conditions are fueling the virus’ voraciousness.
More than 1 million Canadians identify themselves as aboriginal — 64 percent are members of First Nations (a group the law calls Indians), 30 percent are Metis (a distinctive cultural group that evolved from mixed marriages with early European settlers) and 4 percent are Inuit living in Canada’s Arctic.
Their plight has long been described as Canada’s national shame. Poverty, unemployment, health, education, housing — in all these areas the condition of aboriginal people is far worse than the Canadian average. Unemployment in some Indian reserves, for instance, is as high as 80 percent.
Almost half of Canada’s Indians live on 2,300 reserves. The Indian Act, a federal law, prevents them from obtaining title to land. Most of the reserve housing is subsidized by the federal government and owned by local Indian councils. Housing shortages — and overcrowding — are severe.
In the fall of 2005, a Cree reserve in northern Ontario was evacuated because of contaminated water. When the big city media from the south rushed to take a look, reporters found 230 houses for 1,600 people — an average of seven people to a house. Space was so tight some families were sleeping in shifts.
In any given year, it’s not unusual for almost 100 First Nation communities in Canada to be advised to boil water to make it safe to drink. The steam produced from the boiling feeds the mold in already poorly maintained houses, some of which don’t have indoor plumbing.
Not surprisingly, swine flu and other infections can spread through native communities like wildfire. The rate of tuberculosis among aboriginal Canadians is 20 times higher than among non-aboriginals, according to a federal government report in 2002.
When not fighting illnesses, many battle alcoholism, family breakdown, cultural collapse and an insensitive criminal justice system. Aboriginal Canadians make up 19 percent of inmates in federal penitentiaries but only 3 percent of the Canadian population. (Only Greenland and New Zealand have larger proportions of aboriginals in their populations.)
The federal government last year recognized its historical role in the breakdown of aboriginal societies. For much of the last century, the government conducted a policy of assimilation. About 150,000 aboriginal children were taken from their families and placed in religious “residential” schools, where they were often beaten and sexually abused.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized and offered a $1.6 billion compensation plan for victims.
“The government now recognizes that the consequences of the Indian residential schools policy were profoundly negative and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on aboriginal culture, heritage and language,” Harper told Parliament.
But Harper has been far less generous on other issues. He scrapped an accord that the former Liberal government signed with the 10 provincial premiers in 2005. Known as the Kelowna accord, it targeted $4.4 billion toward improving education and housing on reserves, and reducing youth suicides and infant mortality rates.
And, summers inevitably see members of Indian communities barricading highways, bridges or train tracks to protest inaction on land claims that drag on for decades.
They’ll no doubt be at the barricades again soon, if swine flu doesn’t get them first.
Read more on Canada:
On whales, drinking water and the Great Lakes
A rescued piglet and a seal gutting
Unnecessary security on the US-Canada border?