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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - The government apologized on Thursday for sending a large shipment of body bags to aboriginal communities in northern Canada bracing for new outbreaks of the H1N1 flu.
Aboriginal leaders said the body-bag delivery shows the government has already given up on fighting H1N1 in the communities. They expressed outrage at getting body bags instead of sufficient resources to deal with the flu.
"The government has made it clear... what happened was inexcusable," Transport Minister John Baird told Parliament, where opposition parties grilled the Conservatives over the issue.
The government has ordered a probe into the shipments to reserves in northern Manitoba which are bracing for a repeat of H1N1 flu outbreaks that hit some of the isolated villages earlier in the year.
Health Canada said it regretted the alarm caused by the shipments.
The agency said it routinely restocks medical supplies to help the isolated communities "prepare for unknown and unforeseen events" such as pandemics and plane crashes, but the shipment was far more than needed.
Native leaders say the earlier flu outbreaks were worsened by a slow government response, and the body bag incident was another example of the government's failure to work with them on preparing for the virus.
The controversy coincided with a report on Thursday that the first major outbreaks of H1N1 virus of the new flu season in Canada have hit remote aboriginal communities on Vancouver Island on the Pacific Coast.
No deaths have been reported, and most of the people who have become sick have suffered "fairly mild" symptoms, according to the report, according to the on-line journal of the Canadian Medical Association.
Health experts say factors such as close living conditions, poverty and poor sanitation are likely to contribute to fast transmission of H1N1 in aboriginal communities.
Reporting by Allan Dowd, Editing by Frank McGurty