Deena Hinshaw: From folk hero to scapegoat
The former chief medical officer of health got first-hand experience how fickle and chaotic politics are in Alberta
I’m Dave Cournoyer and this is the Daveberta Substack.
Today, I write about former chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw and the impossible role she played in Alberta politics since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Below the column, I share a few thoughts on ministerial mandate letters as a communications exercise and Premier Danielle Smith’s “pivot.”
If you don’t have time to read today’s column right away, here are some of my main points:
Dr. Deena Hinshaw got first-hand experience of how fickle and chaotic politics are in Alberta.
Dr. Hinshaw would never be able to meet all the public expectations placed on her. The nature of her role meant she couldn’t manoeuvre like a politician.
She was an early political target of people who believed the government went too far with public health restrictions, including now-Premier Smith. She later lost the faith of people who accused her of standing idly by when then-Premier Kenney launched his his Best Summer Ever.
Dr. Hinshaw, Dr. Verna Yiu, and Kenney lost their jobs. The two pandemic health ministers, Tyler Shandro and Jason Copping, didn’t.
A review of what happened in the halls of power and in Dr. Hinshaw’s office over the past two and a half years will be absolutely critical to how we prepare and react to future crises.
Deena Hinshaw: From folk hero to scapegoat
With COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses continuing to spread through classrooms and workplaces, new Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Mark Joffe issued a statement that included an unusually worded piece of advice to Albertans.
“Wearing a well-fitting, high-quality mask can help reduce the risk of becoming sick and help protect others from being exposed. Albertans should be supported regardless of their choice to mask or not.”
It’s the second sentence in that point that caught my attention.
We wouldn’t ask Albertans to support people who choose not to wash their hands or cover their mouths when they cough, so why did this partially politicized wording make it into a statement from Alberta’s top public health official?
To answer that question we need to look back at the two and a half years since COVID-19 first arrived in Alberta and the experience of the former chief medical officer of health who led us through it.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw has a story to tell and I hope we hear it one day.
As chief medical officer of health, Dr. Hinshaw was the face of Alberta’s public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic and she got a first-hand experience of the fickle and chaotic nature of politics and public opinion in Alberta.
Dr. Hinshaw was an unlikely folk hero.
She was widely commended early in the pandemic for her calm and measured delivery in press briefings, her solid command of the pandemic response and genuine expressions of empathy for those suffering from the disease, wrote Geoff Mcmaster in the University of Alberta’s Folio magazine in March 2020.
The Alberta government announced this week that Dr. Hinshaw is no longer the chief medical officer of health.
As she leaves the role, it’s important that she be treated as more than a footnote.
Albertans by the thousands welcomed Dr. Hinshaw into their homes by tuning into her daily COVID-19 updates.
She was celebrated on t-shirts and tattoos, and there was even talk of renaming Edmonton’s Corona LRT station after her. A periodic table of elements dress she wore during one of her briefings became an online sensation.
Without a doubt she is intelligent, compassionate and accomplished in her field. For many Albertans, the soft-spoken and patient Dr. Hinshaw was a breath of fresh air compared to the blustery partisanship of then-Premier Jason Kenney.
As Kenney’s public approval dropped like a lead balloon, many Albertans looked to the non-partisan Dr. Hinshaw for science-based advice for facing the pandemic.
But politics would end up destroying her folk hero status.
It was almost inevitable that Dr. Hinshaw would never be able to meet all the public expectations placed on her. The very nature of her role as a public health expert and senior public servant meant she would never be able to manoeuvre like a politician. She would never be able to be everything to everyone.
Very early in the pandemic she became a political target of people who believed the government went too far with public health restrictions and mandatory face-masking and vaccinations. A lot of these people, including the restaurant owner Danielle Smith, now Alberta’s Premier, were frustrated by the impact of the restrictions. Many of them embraced and were driven by conspiracy theories that spread across the internet like wildfire.
And, later, she lost the faith of another group of Albertans who accused her of standing idly by as Kenney cancelled public health measures to launch his Best Summer Ever. The premature lifting of restrictions proved to be disastrous and cost many Albertans their lives as COVID-19 infections skyrocketed and hospital ICUs overflowed.
By that point, Dr. Hinshaw’s list of enthusiastic public allies grew thin. Her office even needed to hire a private security company when threats against her became a serious concern.
The more Alberta’s public health response to COVID-19 got intertwined with the raucous internal politics of the United Conservative Party, the more she began to be used as a political shield and scapegoat by a premier desperate to save his political career.
Her updates were frequently hijacked by Kenney, who would inject his political message of the day into what had started at the beginning of the pandemic as a platform for non-partisan public health updates.
It wasn’t long before calls for her firing became one of the top demands of a growing number of UCP members, including many who toppled Kenney in the leadership review and supported Smith in the ensuing leadership race. Smith made it one of the first campaign promises she delivered on.
It sounded like a storyline from VEEP.
“We hired the wrong Dr. Joffe!?,” I can hear Vice President Selina Meyer yelling at her staff. The the episode would follow Amy Brookheimer and Dan Egan as they try to switch the appointment while clumsy press secretary Mike McLintock would try to spin it as not being a mistake.
It would have been a great episode of an HBO political comedy.
But this is Alberta politics, the next best thing.
These are the kind of problems and perceptions that will follow Smith, who spent the past two years entertaining fringe ideas about COVID-19 on her popular talk radio show and locals.com page, and even recently mused about inviting Donald Trump-ally Dr. Paul Alexander to visit Alberta.
Of course, it’s notable that while Dr. Hinshaw, straight-talking Alberta Health Services President and CEO Dr. Verna Yiu, and Kenney himself lost their jobs, the two pandemic health ministers responsible for the province’s COVID-19 response did not. Smith kept Tyler Shandro as Minister of Justice and Jason Copping as Minister of Health when she named her cabinet.
The small army of health law professors on Twitter will argue that Dr. Hinshaw legally had more power to force public health measures in place but in reality she was constrained by politics of the day. The Chief Medical Officer of Health is not an independent officer of the Legislature like the Auditor General or Ethics Commissioner. They are closer to a public servant who could be easily removed if they were to become too politically troublesome for the government.
None of this is to say that Dr. Hinshaw is beyond reproach. There are serious questions that need to be answered about some of her decisions, including her response to the spread of the deadly virus through meat-packing plants in Brooks and High River and in privately-owned nursing homes across Alberta.
In many ways, it’s a story of what happens when public health advice during a crisis is tempered by political agendas. In the end, it robs the credibility of the medical system.
The question is whether we have learned anything from the past two and half years that will better prepare us for the next pandemic or public health crisis?
A proper review of what happened in the halls of power and in Dr. Hinshaw’s office over the past two and a half years will be absolutely critical to how we prepare and react to future crises.
We need to hear Dr. Hinshaw’s story.
One more thing…
With six and a half months until Election Day, there has been a daily flurry of public statements and letters coming from Premier Danielle Smith’s office proclaiming ministerial mandates and government announcements.
The daily decrees are designed to give the impression that Smith’s government is doing a lot right now, but as anyone who has worked in government knows, things rarely actually move that fast. As a result, as conservative thinker Ken Boessenkool pointed out, the mandate letters are now more of a communications exercise than an important part of the governing process.
But it does give us some indication of what we might expect heading into the pre-election Legislative session and the “pivot” that Calgary Sun columnist Rick Bell wrote about a few weeks ago.
Calgary features prominently in the announcements, not only because it is the province’s largest city but because its ridings are expected to be very competitive between the UCP and NDP in the next election.
Smith is talking more about affordability and the cost of living than she did in the leadership race, but mostly in a way that blames Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rather than the party that has been in power in Alberta for the past three years.
Pivoting to issues like affordability could be challenging if the Alberta Sovereignty Act and enshrining human rights for people who refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19 are at the top of Smith’s agenda when the Legislature returns at the end of the month.
Rachel Notley’s NDP are already running ads against the Sovereignty Act filled with quotes from Smith’s UCP leadership opponents-turned-cabinet ministers warning about the dangers of the act.
Election season is in full swing in Alberta.
Canadian Podcast Awards
I was honoured to join the Canadian Podcast Awards online ceremony to announce that CBC’s Frontburner Podcast won the Best News & Current Affairs Podcast for 2022. The Daveberta Podcast, currently on a semi-permanent hiatus, won the award in 2020.
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