Welcome to BC sign at Mount Robson Provincial Park. Photo: iStock/miroslav_1

Sprawlcast: The Albertans who are fleeing the province

Fed up with the government, many are eying the exits.

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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.

DR. TEHSEEN LADHA: You’re not even feeling like you’re heard, or listened to, by our leadership. And instead, you are actually being put down publicly on social media by our leadership. It is very sad and very disappointing. And I think a lot of physicians are feeling quite helpless and hopeless.

JEREMY KLASZUS: It seems like every day I’m hearing from somebody new who’s decided to leave Alberta. It’s not that they want to leave—in fact, a lot of these folks are pretty torn up about it. They love this province. And they want to make a good life here.

But they don’t see a future here when the Alberta government is hellbent on recreating the past. There are a lot of Albertans who don’t see themselves reflected in the UCP's vision.

These people are artists, doctors, photographers, you name it—people in different age groups who have made the decision to move on.

Now if I’m honest, I’ve thought of leaving Alberta too. When I have a friend who up and moves with his family to Victoria, I think to myself—well wouldn’t that be nice. Especially when every day here seems to bring another round of bad news.

As one example, I read in the Calgary Herald this morning that the Kenney government is considering cuts to AISH. This is the provincial program that supports folks with disabilities so they can pay for their basic needs.

Like, what are we doing in this province?

We should try to make Alberta better so people stay.

Anyways, the long and short of it for me is that I’m stuck here. I’m stuck here with The Sprawl and you people—and I am genuinely happy about that part. But others are leaving. And as I kept hearing more and more of these stories, I thought—you know what, we should share some of these stories on Sprawlcast.

Because if people are leaving this province that we know and love, we should find out why. And we should try to make Alberta better so people stay.

Hadeel Abdel-Nabi has been looking into this for The Sprawl. Hadeel is our staff writer intern, and for this episode she spoke with a couple of folks who are facing the tough decision of whether to stay or leave Alberta.

HADEEL ABDEL-NABI: I got some bittersweet news a few days ago. My close friend, Adeel Khan, is moving to Toronto.

Although I’ve lived in Calgary my whole life, I’ve never quite felt like a real Albertan. I don’t like to hike. I don’t like to camp. I don’t like being outside in general, if we’re being honest. But I think playing into that self-assigned narrative hindered me for a while. I didn’t take the time to explore this province or really appreciate it.

That’s where Adeel and I differ. He moved here for high school and has been making the absolute most of Alberta since then. He really loved living here, and as cliché as it might sound, he explored and appreciated good ol’ ’Berta like a tourist.

That always inspired me—not enough to spend a night in a tent swallowing bugs, but definitely enough to see the value of living here, so I wish I could say I was surprised when he told me he was leaving. But I wasn’t.

He really loved living here, he explored and appreciated good ol’ ’Berta.

He graduated from Mount Royal University last year, where we met, with a degree in marketing. And like so many recent grads before him, he was confronted with how unfriendly Alberta's job market can be.

ADEEL KHAN: So for the first year, I was just struggling. Just applying to jobs, not hearing back. I went to career services and got my resumé looked at and did all the workshops—I think I did like seven or eight workshops just on applying and writing resumes and networking. And I would go to a lot of networking events; those didn’t really help.

What pushed me to make this move was I got an opportunity in Ontario. And although it’s not anything crazy amazing, it’s something. That’s making me want to go there now because I’ve literally tried everything here, and nothing’s worked.

For entry-level positions, you have to be working seven years or five years or something like that, whereas in Toronto people are more willing to take the risk on you when you’re a fresh grad or just out.

In Toronto people are more willing to take the risk on you.

Adeel Khan

HADEEL: The UCP talks a lot about creating jobs and saving Alberta and the economy, but those mantras have proven to be self-serving platitudes.

KHAN: I think whenever I hear the Alberta government talk about creating jobs, it’s just focused on oil and gas, energy, big corporations.

And those fresh grads that are graduating from Mount Royal, they’re not really looking to get into oil and gas. They’re trying to get into other niches and other opportunities that don’t really exist here.

HADEEL: So my friend is moving away. Not for a lack of trying to stay, not because he hated living here, but because it’s his only option.

KHAN: I have a mix of emotions. I’m kind of happy that I’m getting my life started finally, but also sad because I’m leaving a lot of people and relationships that I have here.

HADEEL: It’s not just new grads packing up and heading out. You’ve probably heard about the UCP’s war on doctors.

Tehseen Ladha, a physician from Edmonton, has watched the rhetoric play out on social media for months, and now she and her husband are considering leaving too.

I had the opportunity to chat with her about what brought her family to this point. Here’s that interview.

HADEEL: So you are currently an assistant professor in the department of pediatrics at the faculty of medicine and dentistry at the University of Alberta. Is that correct?

LADHA: Yes, that’s correct.

HADEEL: Okay. And when did you start there?

LADHA: So I started at the University of Alberta—it’s been five years.

HADEEL: Can you tell me a little bit about your background, what brought you to Alberta in the first place?

LADHA: I was born in London, England, to immigrant parents from India and East Africa, respectively. And when I was quite young, they immigrated to Alberta, to Edmonton, and that’s where I completed most of my schooling, including medical school.

I did leave briefly to do my residency in Calgary at the Alberta Children’s Hospital and subsequently did an exchange as well in Australia, in Brisbane, for six months. And then I worked in the States for a year while my husband did a fellowship, so I worked at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

In Alberta right now, all physicians are working without any contract at all.

Tehseen Ladha

LADHA: Then I worked in Kelowna, or just outside Kelowna, actually, for a few months while my husband completed another fellowship training. And then we made our way back to Edmonton, where we both got jobs, and we've been here ever since.

We’ve moved around quite a bit, and I’ve had the opportunity to practice medicine in different provinces as well as different countries, which has given me a good perspective on different health systems.

HADEEL: So early last month, to that point, you posted a thread on Twitter that’s been quite popular.

You said that you and your husband, who you mentioned is also a physician, were seriously considering leaving Alberta despite it feeling like home. What prompted that?

LADHA: We both have really strong roots here: we both have our families here in Edmonton and Calgary, respectively, and we have considered it a permanent home until about a year ago.

The things that have taken place to make us question our decision to stay here permanently have been really the devaluation of physicians and other professionals in the health system and education system in Alberta.

As well as the disrespect and the vilification of physicians on social media, in the media, by the government...

And a really dramatic change, which has been lack of security in our careers. And this has come about by a number of bills and legislation that has allowed our minister of health to unilaterally cancel our contract.

So essentially in Alberta right now, all physicians are working without any contract at all.

Not knowing whether they could have a job the next day, whether they’ll be mandated to work in a certain city or town, what the terms of their employment will be one month, one week, even one day from now.

So it’s become quite a toxic environment, and it really hangs heavy on us, especially since the majority of physicians do, in fact, go into the medical field due to a passion for science, physiology...

HADEEL: Sorry to interject, but the audio cuts out a little bit here. She talks about why doctors become doctors in the first place, and a passion for helping people is a really big part of that.

LADHA: Being portrayed as people who simply want more money or are really materialistic has been really damaging to a lot of us and really terrible for morale.

HADEEL: And how does that compare to other provinces that you’ve worked in?

LADHA: That’s a great question. When I worked in BC, there certainly wasn’t that sort of environment. It did feel like physicians were valued.

And even working in Alberta prior to the pandemic and prior to the election a year ago, there weren’t these concerns. We had a contract.

We had a good system of ensuring that there was negotiation, if there were issues with the contract, with the government.

And that’s really what it is. It’s that engagement of key stakeholders, that listening to the population that you’re affecting, and that bilateral and mutual respect, that’s so important. And that’s been present really in all the places I’ve worked, including Alberta, up to quite recently.

And something that I think is so important is that many of the public and many citizens feel that this is sort of a private, personal battle between physicians and the government that doesn’t really impact them.

And our concerns collectively as physicians is that this will impact patient care so strongly and so negatively.

And one of the many things that has affected our morale is the fact that we know we’re not going to be able to provide the same quality of patient-care with the changes that have been made and the changes that are coming.

So aside from having a huge brain drain with doctors leaving, there’s a push towards privatization, which is going to increase health disparities.

There’s a lot of things that are happening that are going to increase wait-times and decrease timely access to healthcare. And that affects every single Albertan because all of us are, or will be, patients of the healthcare system at one point in our lives.

A lot of physicians are feeling quite helpless and hopeless.

Tehseen Ladha

HADEEL: And with all of that going on—all of the consequences and the uncertainty and feeling devalued and disrespected—what has it been like for you over the past several months?

LADHA: It’s been very sad; it’s been very disappointing.

Because when you spend over 12 years of your life in postsecondary education with the hopes of helping and healing and treating patients, and then you’re pushed into the middle of a pandemic, where you’re literally putting your life at risk seeing patients, and then you’re not even feeling like you’re heard or listened to by our leadership, and instead you are actually being put down publicly on social media by our leadership, it is very sad and very disappointing.

I think a lot of physicians are feeling quite helpless and hopeless, and that’s why there are continual reports of people leaving.

Recently there was a report of the majority of doctors in a Sundre clinic that are discontinuing services. That’s going to affect rural care significantly.

There’s also reports of medical specialists in both Edmonton and Calgary that are leaving. And all of this is just really going to negatively impact patient care and really negatively impact physician morale.

HADEEL: So what would be the last straw that would push you to leave? Because, at this point, you and your husband are both still considering leaving Alberta. But what would be that driving factor?

LADHA: That’s a good question. We’ve definitely said that if the current leadership is re-elected, I think that would definitely be a last straw for us and, I think, for many, many physicians.

Having said that, with what’s already happened in a year, there’s a lot more that could happen. We’re seeing a lot more on the horizon, so some changes are coming that would give the government increased regulatory power over physicians so that they could mandate not only where we work but also manage the complaint process against us and things that were generally managed by our College of Physicians and Surgeons in the past.

I think if some of those things come into effect, we will reconsider again. It really depends on how far is this push towards privatization, the cuts in the public healthcare system, how far will they go.

If they go to a point where we feel like we can’t provide good patient care within the system, I think that would be one of the last straws. But certainly if there was a reelection of this leadership I think that would trigger a lot of us to move on.

HADEEL: So where would you go?

LADHA: We haven’t decided. We would like to stay in Canada, and I think we would look at other provinces and see where the job opportunities are.

My husband’s fairly specialized, so there would have to be a job opening in his field. But other than that, I think we would be fairly flexible about where we went.

And I think the fact that us, as well as so many other families—physician families—are considering this, or have already left, when they have such deep roots in Alberta really speaks a lot as to what this has done to our health system already and what we anticipate happening to our health system within the next couple of years.

People are willing to leave to get a similar income, so the money won’t be very different, but what will be different is just the ability to have respect as well as feel like you can make a difference in patients’ health within a system that works.

If our voices are strong enough and our activism is loud enough, we can create change.

Tehseen Ladha

HADEEL: Yeah, I think that’s what really struck me about what you posted on Twitter, is feeling like a prairie girl at heart but feeling like you’re forced to leave a place that you love, if it ever comes down to it.

LADHA: Yeah. And it’s true, and it’s so sad. But it’s funny because, being a visible minority and being an immigrant, I never really thought of myself that way.

But then after having lived in many different places and coming back to Alberta, I just felt so at home when we came back.

I remember driving and looking at the flat plains and being able to see the horizon for kilometres and kilometres and thinking, wow, I really like this landscape.

So, you know, I really am a prairie girl, and so we really do love our jobs, and we do love the province, but it’s becoming more and more difficult.

And I think aside from work, there’s so many other things going on in the province—with our education system, which is also starting to be slowly dismantled.

I think there’ll be a push towards privatization of schools as well. There’s been some issues towards nursing professionals and other healthcare professionals.

Some of the sentiments are really values that we disagree on. We’re quite strongly against racism and discrimination.

Inclusion and diversity is really important to us, as well as feminism, and it just feels like we’re going a bit backwards right now.

That’s something we certainly don’t want to see, and that’s certainly an environment we don’t want to raise our children in.

HADEEL: Do you feel like there’s much of a choice at this point whether you stay or leave?

LADHA: I guess it always is our choice in that we do have the liberty to stay. But having said that, we do feel like our hand is being forced a bit because I really don’t know of any other employee in any company or any civil servant who would work without a contract.

Some of these things that are coming into place are basic rights, basic worker’s rights, and even basic human rights. Like being able to decide where you’ll work after all that post-secondary education and training.

So I do think there’s a bit of that where physicians are feeling forced to make a decision that they don’t necessarily want to take, and we'll just have to see how many do leave.

Right now we’ve chosen to stay and see if we can advocate, not only for physicians, of course, but for our patients, for our vulnerable populations, for the people that are really going to be affected by legislations that have been passed or are coming into effect—and not just within the health system, but overall.

My hope is that, if our voices are strong enough and our activism is loud enough, we can create change. But, you know, we have been trying—many groups have been trying for some time—and there doesn’t seem to be any movement or any listening, which has been quite difficult.

We need to look at innovative and creative ways, as a province, of optimizing patient care within our health budget.

Tehseen Ladha

HADEEL: And would feeling heard, and seeing some movement happen, would that keep you in Alberta or bring you back if you end up leaving?

LADHA: Yeah, I think it would.

I think a big piece of what’s happening here is the lack of engagement—lack of listening, lack of having key stakeholders at the table.

Open communication and honesty: just being really honest about what's going on—not twisting words and portraying groups in a certain way, but rather just having people around a table and trying to figure out the best way forward for the province and for the majority of people in the province.

I think that’s really what’s needed, and I think, if that were to happen, that would really be a step forward.

An example of this is that, since our contract has been canceled, there have been multiple attempts by our representation, the Alberta Medical Association, to reach out to our minister of health and even our premier to try to have a conversation, have a discussion.

We’ve proposed fee cutbacks—all the things that we think perhaps would be helpful to the province during this difficult time.

But none of those have even been responded to. And even the cancelling of our contract was not notified to the Alberta Medical Association. We actually heard about it through the media.

In an environment where we’re not even spoken to or have the opportunity to be heard or hear what’s going to happen, it's very difficult to make any progress.

HADEEL: If you did have that opportunity to be listened to, what would you say to the current UCP government?

LADHA: I think I would say, on behalf of patients, firstly, that we need to look at innovative and creative ways, as a province, of optimizing patient care within our health budget.

And, secondly, I would say that, as a group of physicians and healthcare professionals, we do wish to have open communication about a contract and, again, come to an agreement on something that will work within Alberta’s economy while still allowing physicians’ input on the healthcare system.

Because, really, people within medicine are the experts, and if they’re not being consulted when drastic changes are made to the health system, we know that that's not going to turn out well.

The actions of the government right now in the health system towards physicians is impacting every single citizen of Alberta.

Tehseen Ladha

HADEEL: If there was one thing—the most important thing, I suppose—that you want the listeners to take away from this, what would it be?

LADHA: I think the most important thing to understand is that the actions of the government right now in the health system towards physicians is impacting every single citizen of Alberta.

Everybody needs to know that this is something that they should all be engaged in because it’s going to impact them directly.

If we end up in a privatization model, which we’re already moving towards with some of the legislation that’s been passed, people will be waiting longer, costs will be astronomical, and patient care will be of poor quality. Those are things that are all published in the scientific literature on studies that have been done in private healthcare.

The really important message is, if you value universal healthcare, if you value your health system being accessible and being good quality, then you need to speak out and we need to really band together because otherwise we’re not going to be heard.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Hadeel Abdel-Nabi is The Sprawl’s staff writer intern.

Support in-depth Calgary journalism.

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We connect Calgarians with their city through in-depth, curiosity-driven journalism—but can't do this alone! We rely on our readers and listeners to fund our work. Join us by becoming a Sprawl member today!