The Shandro fiasco

Alberta’s health minister takes on doctors — and his critics.

Subscribe to Sprawlcast on iTunes, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. A lightly-edited transcript of this episode is below, for those who would rather read than listen.

JANICE FRASER: The effect was, of course, to intimidate me through this threat so that I would become silent.

WING KAR LI: We need to, as Albertans, not normalize this behavior. Even though there seems to be no consequence …

RYAN JESPERSEN: The health minister must resign, or the premier must relieve him of his duties. This, in the middle of a pandemic – deplorable.

JEREMY KLASZUS (HOST): It's been quite a month for Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro. It's been quite a month for health ministers all over the world, of course, with the COVID-19 pandemic turning everything upside down and testing our health systems.

But along with that, Alberta has had some rather intense political drama play out as this all unfolds. We've seen questions of conflict of interest. We've seen the health minister threaten Albertans who criticize him publicly. And underlying everything is a very public fight between Shandro and the province's doctors over the way physicians are paid for their work.

In Alberta right now, it's hard to focus in on this story, or any story, because everything is changing so fast. And it seems like there's a new conflagration every day in Alberta.

But let's stay with this one story, because this story says a lot about what we've normalized in Alberta—and what we're becoming.

Look to Telus for remote health care: Kenney

Let's go back to Thursday, March 19. This was on the first week that schools were closed, and that morning, the Government of Alberta announced that it was partnering with Telus, a private corporation, to facilitate virtual visits with doctors, in the midst of a pandemic, through an app called Babylon.

And almost immediately, Alberta doctors spoke out against this, saying: Why are you directing people to Telus, and not to their family physician right now? The people who can give the best care.

This was announced on March 19, but it was clearly in the cards beforehand. The company Telus shares a similar view to Jason Kenney on healthcare—namely, that the public system is inefficient, spending is out of control, and the whole thing could use some private interventions.

DARREN ENTWISTLE: The province spends more per capita on healthcare than many of its neighbours.

JEREMY: This is Telus CEO Darren Entwistle, and he was speaking in September in downtown Edmonton, along with Premier Jason Kenney. They were there to announce an investment by Telus in the province's broadband network. But they also used the occasion to talk about healthcare.

ENTWISTLE: At Telus, all of our 60,000 team members are committed to working with Premier Kenney and his administration to ensure that Albertans realize significantly improved health outcomes.

There are so many synergies… between what this company will do to generate returns for its shareholders, while making life better for ordinary people.

Premier Jason Kenney on Telus, September 2019

PREMIER JASON KENNEY: There are so many synergies in the vision that Darren just articulated between what this company will do to generate returns for its shareholders, while making life better for ordinary people in this province—so many synergies between that vision and the vision of the Government of Alberta.

JEREMY: You probably think of Telus as a phone and Internet company. But they actually do a lot more, including already doing a bunch in the health field, most notably by providing systems for medical records used by doctors and pharmacies.

Telus was actually born out of a crown corporation: Alberta Government Telephones, or AGT. This was the government utility that provided phone service to Alberta for most of the 20th century, but in the early 1990s, Alberta's Progressive Conservative Party privatized AGT, which, in effect, became Telus.

Since AGT was privatized, Telus has been a big donor to conservative parties in Alberta over the years, and they've also received a number of sole-source contracts, and at that September announcement, both Kenney and Entwistle talked up the Babylon app.

KENNEY: I believe we can partner with Telus to deliver better health outcomes at lower cost.

ENTWISTLE: And we look forward to further expanding these innovative solutions for the benefit of all citizens within the province.

JEREMY: At the time, this didn't get much attention, but now this app has been rolled out in the middle of a pandemic. Immediately, there was tons of public outcry.

Rally for public health care and education, February 29. Photo: Jeremy Klaszus

Albertans couldn't protest in the streets like they had a few weeks before, when thousands of Calgarians gathered in downtown to protest privatization and cuts to education and healthcare. Instead, a campaign emerged to drag down this app through negative reviews – like these.

REVIEWER #1: Read the privacy policy. Your data is not secure.

REVIEWER #2: They will share your personal data, meaning your private health info, with Telus, so they can market other products to you. No, thank you.

REVIEWER #3: Never use this app, as it will eventually direct you to the emergency department and not connect you with your own doctor.

JEREMY: Physicians were also speaking out against the Babylon app because they were being paid $20 per virtual consultation, whereas through the app, it was almost twice that for doctors—$38. After public outcry, the province did relent on that. Now doctors are getting that rate of $38 per virtual consultation. But on March 19, that was still a few days away.

And on that day, Thursday, March 19, something started floating around Twitter. Specifically, Health Minister Tyler Shandro's financial disclosures, which showed that he had an interest—part ownership—of a company called Vital Partners Inc., a company co-founded by his wife, Andrea Shandro.

Questions about Shandro's business holdings

JEREMY: Vital Partners is a company that develops employee benefit plans and health spending accounts. They also broker supplementary health insurance for services that aren't covered publicly.

WING KAR LI: In my mind, I perceived this all to be public information.

JEREMY: This is Wing Kar Li. She's a neuroscientist who lives outside Edmonton. She's pretty outspoken on social media about public healthcare, public education, and she was struck by what she saw in Shandro's disclosures.

LI: I reacted. I thought, wow, this should be public information. I view myself as a private citizen, but also, this was of incredible public interest, considering the context of the health ministry. Considering the context of what's been happening with policy, the unilateral ending of the agreement for the doctors, which I had been following pretty closely.

JEREMY: All of this was happening against the backdrop of Shandro's cuts to physician pay. This had been announced in February, before the pandemic set in—or at least before we knew it was a pandemic. And doctors weren't happy about it: They said it would force them to make a choice between working in hospitals or working in their clinics. And they said, this is going to force many of us to leave the province.

But even once coronavirus was declared a pandemic, the Kenney government doubled down. They didn't back away from these cuts. Eventually, they did back down on some of the points, but the bulk of them they've stuck with.

And so with all of this in mind, Li tweeted about Shandro's disclosures, and here's what she said:

LI: And then it just took off. I'm not sure I expected that, because things had been broken, I guess, like, publicly before about this government, in other areas. But this kind of caught on because, I think, of the context of everything all happening—rolling out Babylon and the doctors' cuts and all of that. So within a few hours, the tweet had 2,000 retweets or something—by the end of that night.

I asked Li if she would rephrase her tweet today, given what she now knows about Vital Partners. That it's not a private health insurance company per se, but a company that develops employee benefit plans for businesses and also brokers supplementary health insurance.

LI: Based on what I knew of at the time, and based on me being a private citizen, I think that was a reasonable comment. Maybe someone who's well-versed in that business aspect could have delved more into the details. But honestly, no, it was a private corporation. They do deal in insurance, they do make a profit off the brokerage of that insurance and I think that connection there was important.

'The effect was, of course, to intimidate me'

JEREMY: As CBC reported in March, one of the people who was watching this play out was a Calgarian named Janice Fraser. She’s pretty active politically, and in the last five years, she’s managed the constituency offices of two different Calgary MLAs, one NDP, one Liberal.

She also knew Tyler Shandro through projects that he had worked on pro bono as a lawyer.

On Friday, March 20, she went to the Vital Partners website and sent a message using the online contact form, and here she is recalling what she wrote in that message.

JANICE FRASER: Dear Tyler and Andrea Shandro: I believe, as owners of this company and with Tyler being the minister of health, that you are in a conflict of interest. I've held – I hold – Tyler in high professional and personal regard until 2020, and you need to know that Albertans are going to remember this.

And I sent it off. And within the hour, I got the emails that you now have regarding Tyler Shandro's response to me.

JEREMY: So Fraser gets this email from the health minister, Tyler Shandro, from his government email account. The subject line is "Your email to my wife," and it says, quote:

JANICE: Sending threatening emails to my wife is completely inappropriate and must stop. If you want to believe lies about her on social media, that's up to you, but you can send your threatening emails to this office and this office only. Email her again, and it will be referred to protective services.

FRASER: I honest to goodness was absolutely terrified. I initially thought protective services meant the police—he was going to send the police after me.

And so I basically thought he was going to send the police after me, and I started to shake.

Janice Fraser

FRASER: Even though I've worked in constituency offices, we always dealt with the sergeant-at-arms when actual threatening correspondence came into a constituency office, and so I didn't relate protective services to legislative protective services, because for me that was always referred to as the sergeant-at-arms.

And so I basically thought he was going to send the police after me, and I started to shake, and I was so afraid, and the effect was, of course, to intimidate me through this threat so that I would become silent.

JEREMY: So she writes back to Tyler Shandro saying I did not threaten you or your wife in any way, but your response to me is threatening and inappropriate.

Shandro singles out Li on social media

JEREMY: Later that night, Minister Tyler Shandro took to Twitter. The Alberta Medical Association had posted a letter saying it doesn't condone cyber bullying, and this letter was in response to the furor over Vital Partners and the Shandros.

Minister Tyler Shandro wrote a tweet thread that singled out Li for her tweet the day before, and he thanked the Alberta Medical Association for speaking out against the "malicious attack" made by Wing Kar Li. The minister called it a "false and deeply personal attack on my partner Andrea," and he said that Andrea was getting disgusting emails and death threats in the aftermath of Li’s tweet.

Now, it’s quite a stretch to call Li’s tweet a personal attack. It was raising a question of public interest. And in a democracy, citizens ostensibly have the freedom to raise these questions. Even when they discomfort those in power. Even during a pandemic.

But Shandro framed it as if Li had intentionally and maliciously incited death threats.

About those death threats—Shandro’s office has been repeatedly asked to provide examples of them, and they haven’t. They didn’t give them to CBC when asked, and when I asked for this story, once again no dice.

In his tweet thread, Shandro also posted a letter from the ethics commissioner, dated that same day. The letter basically cleared him of any conflict of interest, according to the commissioner. She said that he had complied with all of the regulations, his business interests were held in a blind trust, and she would not be investigating as there are no grounds to warrant an investigation.

We'll come back to the ethics commissioner, but first, here's Li describing her reaction when she first read that thread.

WING KAR LI: It was shock that it was framed in such a way. It was framed as though I abused her. And then it was fear. It was, oh, okay—you know, like, did I do something wrong? You know, when I put on my thread, I was trying to be careful of sticking to the facts.

And of course, I'm a private citizen, so I just didn't expect a minister to react so publicly in that fashion, of such a strong stance, and also misrepresenting what I had actually tweeted. I went: Did I go too far? Is this too much engagement? Should I be keeping my mouth shut? Is it – is it – are we going up against something that's so powerful and so well resourced that individuals now need to be worried about their safety for not agreeing with policies? And that's not okay.

JEREMY: Shock gave way to fear, which gave way to anger, for Li.

LI: You know, now my reputation's on the line as though I was threatening somebody, when I perceived, personally, that there was – there was a conflict of interest question here on this table, with a minister with a very big portfolio, at an important junction right now in our history, right? We're facing a health crisis, and this is a big deal.

JEREMY: An hour after Shandro tweeted his thread naming Li, Premier Jason Kenney retweeted it.

LI: By 7:06, the premier, on his official account, said, "I am appalled that @shandro's wife has been targeted with threats, personal attacks," on a direct – so the part of the thread that he shows started with my name. He retweeted that part of Tyler Shandro's thread that says, "Since @karliwithakay's tweet went out …"

So it's right there, right? Like, the first part of the retweet, you can see my handle. And I felt that was not appropriate to frame it in this way – to frame it as though I was launching these personal attacks. And he is the premier, using his very big platform.

I had, in the meantime, put out a statement that I don't condone attacks on any person because it was also happening to me. And I posted proof of me being attacked—you know, racist, misogynist attacks.

JEREMY: And that brings us to Saturday, March 21, and the infamous driveway incident in Calgary.

Keep focus on primary care: Dr. Zaidi

RYAN JESPERSEN: A story that shouldn't be going away, as far as I'm concerned, Alberta's health minister showing up at the driveway—the private residence—of a physician, an acquaintance to the health minister, to take issue with a social media post.

JEREMY: That's Edmonton radio host Ryan Jespersen of 630 CHED recalling the incident of March 21, a story first broken by Charles Rusnell at CBC. The gist was that Dr. Zaidi had posted a meme to Facebook about Vital Partners. And then the Shandros showed up at his house to berate him about it and to ask him to take the post down.

Throughout this whole thing, Zaidi has been clear that he's forgiven the health minister over that incident. He's also been clear that media contacted him, and not the other way around, about this driveway incident.

But what Dr. Zaidi has said is the real story here is Shandro's cuts to physicians and public healthcare. In his interview with Jespersen, he emphasized that doctors' good intentions do not pay for the work they do—or for all the costs associated with running a clinic. All the supplies and whatnot. And doctors and Albertans need to stand up for primary healthcare as Shandro's ministry takes the knife to it.

DR. MUKARRAM ZAIDI: We need to earn money to pay all this. That's where we are frustrated. We know that we don’t want to go bankrupt. That's why I posted a meme which says… it shows the minister sitting, and it says: Every Albertan that I can kick off health care is another client we can sign up for Vital Partners. We are going to be rich! The meme was not trashy. The meme was not defaming. It wasn't an attack on his wife. It was to advocate for the rights of our patients, and to protect publicly-funded primary health care.

Now what has happened, the premier has done a huge disservice and mischaracterized the meme and attacked my integrity to protect his minister.

JEREMY: That's Dr. Zaidi speaking on the Ryan Jespersen Show on 630 CHED, March 30th. Like Li, Zaidi thinks there's a conflict of interest situation that, at the very least, needs to be publicly discussed. And as happened with Li, the premier has characterized the health minister and his family as being attacked by Zaidi.

The premier has done a huge disservice and mischaracterized the meme and attacked my integrity to protect his minister.

Dr. Mukarram Zaidi

PREMIER JASON KENNEY (MARCH 27): Last week there was an online campaign of defamation and harassment of Minister Shandro's wife based on completely spurious, false, disproven allegations, which have been dismissed by the ethics commissioner, including death threats that were issued against his wife. I think any Albertan would understand that a husband or wife will get passionate when their spouse is being attacked, and even threatened, and certainly defamed.

When Minister Shandro saw that his wife was being defamed by a neighbor who had been an acquaintance of his for many years, he went down to chat with the neighbor and ask that the post be deleted, and it was deleted.

I understand the minister issued a statement saying that if the neighbors took offense at having been approached about this, he's sorry for that. As far as I'm concerned, that's the end of the matter.

JEREMY: That's not true: Shandro actually did not apologize for his actions on the driveway.

ZAIDI: Neither of them, nor any party member or sitting MLA or minister has showed disapproval of his behavior. What the premier has done right now is approved behaviour which gives the rights to any sitting MLA, MP, minister or anybody who serves the Crown—has the right to go and do the same thing.

JEREMY: What his statement said was that he regretted "that this episode has become a distraction" during the COVID-19 pandemic, and "for that, I am sincerely sorry," he said.

It appeared to me that there is a conflict of interest, and I knew that the ethics commissioner had already cleared the health minister about this.

Aaron Cornborough

Now I want to jump back to something Kenney said in that statement.

PREMIER KENNEY: …disproven allegations, which have been dismissed by the ethics commissioner.

JEREMY: Let's take a closer look at that.

‘Show some compassion’ for Shandro: Alberta ethics commissioner

A Calgarian named Aaron Cornborough was watching all this unfold on social media, and he decided to reach out to the ethics commissioner about it.

CORNBOROUGH: Really what bothered me about this whole issue, you know, regarding the ethics commissioner, is it appeared to me that there is a conflict of interest, and I knew that the ethics commissioner had already cleared the health minister about this.

But just a few things sort of set off a few really big warning bells for me, one of them being, you know, an email from his wife's company was forwarded to him, and then he used his own government email to respond to this private citizen. It seemed very unethical to me that someone that is as a blind trust or a, you know, not a conflict of interest, would be answering those types of emails.

It also really bothered me that he went to a private citizen's home to berate him for something that was posted on social media.

JEREMY: So he writes to the ethics commissioner, outlining these concerns and asking her to investigate, and he hears back from Marguerite Trussler, Alberta's ethics commissioner, a few hours later.

CORNBOROUGH: First when I got the response, I was actually quite surprised that I actually even got a response, because I'd been emailing my MLA and various people in government and had never received a response other than an auto-response back. And so I was pleasantly surprised to see that I got a response, and so I started reading the email back, and, I was quickly quite disappointed in the response, because it appeared to me that this was a very partisan and political response from the ethics commissioner.

While you may not agree with his politics or his behavior, this might be a time to show some compassion.

Marguerite Trussler, Alberta Ethics Commissioner

JEREMY: In her email, Trussler said she couldn't investigate Shandro's behavior of threatening citizens because it doesn't fall under the Conflicts of Interest Act. This isn’t all that surprising as Alberta’s ethics commissioner, an officer of the legislature, is fairly limited in what she can look into.

Trussler also reiterated what she had said in her previous letter—the one that Shandro had posted publicly—that when Shandro became health minister, he disclosed his and his wife's interest in Shandro Holdings Inc., and after careful consideration, it was determined that there was no conflict of interest, and his wife did not need to be deprived of her livelihood.

But then the email takes a weird twist.

She goes on to say that Alberta is in the middle of the worst crisis since it became a province, and that the minister has been working long days—16 to 20 hours each day. She says Andrea Shandro's been receiving death threats and that, as a result, the minister was given permission to go home for a few days on the weekend.

Commissioner Trussler goes on to chide Cornborough for raising the questions that he did in his email. Trussler: "While you may not agree with his politics or his behavior, this might be a time to show some compassion."

CORNBOROUGH: I felt that she was condoning his behavior and defending him, and that just sort of blew me away, to be honest… Just the fact that she basically went on his side and said that we should be giving him some compassion and feeling, I don't believe that there's a place for that, for an ethics commissioner to be writing that about an individual.

JEREMY: I reached out to the ethics commissioner for this story. I forwarded the email that Cornborough had got from the ethics commissioner, and I heard back quickly with a short email from Trussler’s office. Here it is in full: "Thank you for your email. We are not able to provide public comment on this issue." This isn’t surprising as the ethics commissioner doesn’t generally do media interviews.

I felt that she was condoning his behaviour and defending him.

Adam Cornborough

Cuts now in effect; doctors scale back rural practices

JEREMY: In the meantime, Shandro has been sort of sidelined over the last couple weeks—at least publicly.

Earlier this month the government passed Bill 10, which gives the minister more powers in a health emergency. But he used to be at the daily press conferences with Premier Kenney and Dr. Deena Hinshaw, but since the driveway incident at Dr. Zaidi's house, he's been conspicuously absent from the podium.

Meanwhile, the cuts to doctors have gone into effect, and we now face a situation where rural physicians are cutting back their services and even planning to leave the province. For example, a group of doctors in Sundre say they can't afford to work in the local hospital and keep their own clinic going, so they're pulling back from the hospital.

Here's Dr. Rob Warren, one of those physicians, followed by Dr. Vesta Michelle Warren. This was in a video livestream where they were sharing the news with their community on April 2nd.

DR. ROB WARREN: The reality is, we weren't able to figure out a way that we could adapt to these cuts and still provide the same comprehensive care we're used to. We just weren't able to. So that put us in the terrible position of having to choose what we can continue to do and what we have to give up. And every rural community and clinic is having those same conversations right now.

DR. VESTA MICHELLE WARREN: In two weeks' time, we will be giving up obstetrical privileges at the Sundre Hospital, because we can no longer be insured to provide obstetrical services. We're committed to delivering one of our patients who is currently due, but after that, we will no longer be delivering babies in Sundre. We will still look after you in our clinic; we'll provide your maternity care; we'll look after you after your delivery when you return to your homes; but the actual labor and delivery, we'll no longer be able to offer.

We weren’t able to figure out a way that we could adapt to these cuts and still provide the same comprehensive care we’re used to.

Dr. Rob Warren

JEREMY: Shandro was asked about this in the legislature. Here's NDP MLA Janice Irwin putting the question to the health minister on April 7th.

JANIS IRWIN: This means expecting parents in Sundre will have to drive to another community to give birth. That could mean being away from home for weeks, or having to leave town very suddenly at the onset of labor. Why is this member creating new stress and new danger for mothers and babies in rural Alberta?

SPEAKER: The Honorable Minister of Health.

TYLER SHANDRO: We recognize that physicians throughout the province are facing unprecedented demands, and we're taking action to support them. Their clinics are under pressure throughout this province. As businesses, they're affected by reduced activity throughout the province, as all businesses are. But let's be clear, Mr. Speaker, there has been no increase in physicians starting a process to withdraw from practice.

JEREMY: That same day, NDP health critic David Shepherd reiterated the party's call for Shandro to resign, citing yet another CBC story. This one was about Shandro getting protesting doctors' cell phone numbers from Alberta Health Services.

DAVID SHEPHERD: And given there are more examples of bizarre and inappropriate behaviour by this member, and given he's demonstrated one serious failure of judgment after another, and given he's clearly distracted by his personal battles and this distraction is now pulling people away from their responsibilities as well, will the member do the right thing, put Albertans first, and resign from his post; or better yet, if he won't resign, will the premier show the necessary leadership and remove him from his current post?

VOICE: The Honorable the Minister of Health.

SHANDRO: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. That's the difference between this side and that side. That site is focused on gossip; they're focused on lies. We are focused on Albertans. We are focused on making sure that this province is testing at the highest per capita in this country to be able to make sure that our frontline workers are taken care of, to make sure that they have the PPEs that they need, to make sure that the patients throughout the province have the care that they need to get us through this pandemic, Mr. Speaker. That's this government's priority, and not theirs.

I’ve been watching these kind of over-the-line interactions that seem so inappropriate, and against the code of conduct.

Wing Kar Li

‘We are in a very precarious crisis of democracy’

JEREMY: I asked both Fraser and Li what they've taken away from all of this.

JANICE FRASER: That we are—as Albertans, that we are in a very precarious crisis of democracy and free speech.

WING KAR LI: I am worried. I am concerned, and not just because of this scenario. I've been watching—I've been watching these kind of over-the-line interactions that seem so inappropriate, and against the code of conduct that we've come to believe public officials should be held to. I've seen it in others being called out publicly on the floor of the legislature – you know, a professor being called "failed NDP candidate," and I've seen the sort of concerted campaign to minimize and intimidate citizens asking, really, they're reasonable questions, right? Reasonable questions about policy, critiquing policy, and it's not personal. A lot of it is really about the policy and our concerns.

So when they make it about the personal, it's kind of like a trump card for people to stop asking questions, because they don't want to be called a cyber bully and painted as I have been painted.

And it's an intimidation tactic, I think, to not have any dissent and not to have critical discourse in the public square. And that's frightening to me.

Jeremy Klaszus is editor-in-chief of The Sprawl.

CORRECTION 04/09/2020 11:33 a.m.: The recorded version of this podcast initially misidentified Cornborough as "Adam Cornborough"; his name is Aaron Cornborough. It has been updated accordingly. As well, the recorded podcast was updated to include more clarity on the nature of Vital Partners's business.

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