VICTORIA, B.C. - First Nations communities will be a high priority when Ottawa decides who will be the first to receive the swine flu vaccine this fall, the federal health minister said Monday.

At a news conference in Victoria focusing on First Nations health, a B.C. aboriginal leader suggested native communities - many of which were hit particularly hard by the virus last spring - should be among the first in line when the vaccine is ready.

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, who will be in Winnipeg this week as health officials hammer out their vaccine plans, said she agrees.

"Absolutely," said Aglukkaq.

"In Nunavut, in my riding alone, we have 560 cases of H1N1, 85 per cent of my population are Inuit. . . . All this will be compiled this week in Winnipeg, and that will form the guidelines."

Ottawa has ordered more than 50 million doses of pandemic vaccine - enough for every Canadian to have one shot, or for 75 per cent of the country to receive two.

But the entire order won't be ready all at once, and health officials are now deciding which groups will be first.

Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. David Butler-Jones, has previously said health-care providers and pregnant women will likely be on that list, and now Aglukkaq says First Nations could make the early cut, as well.

"First Nations people will be part of that discussion," she said.

Grand Chief Ed John, who co-chairs an aboriginal health committee in B.C. and is one of the province's most influential native leaders, noted that First Nations were hit especially hard when the virus began to spread in the spring.

And he said the outbreak could become worse as the flu season ramps up.

"All indications are, with this particular pandemic and its potential, that it could be severe, so for our communities, it is real," said John.

"Given the social-economic situation in our communities, the substandard housing, overcrowded housing, we're suggesting . . . to put First Nations communities on that priority list (for the vaccine)."

Ottawa has faced criticism that it was slow to react last spring to the swine flu outbreak in many native and northern communities, with some saying they've been forced to raise money themselves for items such as hand sanitizer and masks.

Just last week, Aglukkaq appeared at a Parliamentary committee to assure MPs that pandemic preparations for First Nations are on track, saying that 90 per cent of communities already have pandemic plans.

But her testimony was followed by native leaders who said that figure is actually much lower, and other problems including overcrowded housing, lack of running water and poor government funding will make matters worse.

The federal government also faced criticism after shipments of hand sanitizers to reserves were delayed in the spring because they contained alcohol.