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New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham, left, and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall attend a meeting of the Council of the Federation in Regina on Wednesday.
New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham, left, and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall attend a meeting of the Council of the Federation in Regina on Wednesday.

Premiers sound alarm on flu threat Add to ...

Premiers and aboriginal leaders are urging swift and deep co-operation among all levels of government to deal with a flu threat that one leader says is careening toward Canada like a "truck coming around a corner."

Provincial and territorial leaders gathered for their annual summer meeting Wednesday seized with the need to find ways to beef up education programs, co-operate on vaccine purchases and prepare hospitals for a potential influx of patients. Manitoba Premier Gary Doer said dealing with an H1N1 pandemic could cost up to $1-billion.

"We have to prepare, I believe, as Canadian leaders working with Parliament, as if there is an H1N1 truck coming around the corner with serious implications for the health of many Canadians," he said, calling the threat the most important issue facing the leaders at their talks.

"We're all in this together," he added.

After a meeting with aboriginal leaders, Saskatchewan's Brad Wall noted that native Canadians are particularly vulnerable. Overcrowding on reserves makes it easier for the flu to spread, and remoteness and lack of simple supplies such as hand-washing liquid are causing anxiety.

The premiers and aboriginal leaders also demanded that all levels of government avoid jurisdictional squabbling in responding to the potential crisis.

Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Shawn Atleo said Canada's natives want government assistance and money.

"In effect, we're asking for help to make sure the most vulnerable of our population - the indigenous peoples of this country - are well-served," he said. "I absolutely feel that we cannot allow interjurisdictional wrangling to hold us up in doing what's right for first nations citizens of this country."

Mr. Atleo said governments cannot fight over who is responsible for paying for health services while the disease races through the population. Health is a shared jurisdiction in Canada, with the federal government responsible for native reserves and disease prevention and the provinces for delivering health care.

Late last month, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities warned that Ottawa has not done enough to keep essential services going if pandemic influenza becomes debilitating this fall. The FCM is concerned that no plan is in place to help front-line workers such as police, public transit operators and public-health professionals.

While the premiers refrained from criticizing Ottawa, Mr. Doer said more work needs to be done.

"This is a huge challenge for Canadians," he said. "Quite frankly, I hope I'm wrong, but I think you in the media, and we as leaders, are going to be spending a lot of time on this challenge in the fall of 2009."

However, he said Canadian authorities are better prepared for H1N1 than they were for the SARS outbreak.

Also this week, the premiers are expected to discuss the federal government's approach to the Copenhagen climate change talks on a successor agreement to the Kyoto Accord. Quebec and Alberta want seats at the table. The provinces, however, remain distant on how far they want the government to go in reducing greenhouse gases. Alberta has expressed deep concern that too robust a regime would gut its oil sands industry.

Finally, the premiers will discuss responses to U.S. policies that allow American municipalities to bar foreign competition from infrastructure projects funded by government economic stimulus.

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