Prescribing a dose of reality for Alberta’s Health Minister

The following appeared originally as a Guest Column on daveberta.ca on March 30, 2020. 

As a Press Secretary for Alberta’s NDP government, I had the pleasure of working with five cabinet ministers, spending countless hours with them at more events than I can remember.

There are, however, a few events I can’t forget.

Like the time the Executive Protection Unit – the EPU, sort of the Premier’s “secret service” – pulled me aside to let me know a threat had been made against the minister I was staffing. They never said where it was from, or what the nature of the threat was, only that we had to go – now.

They discreetly escorted us out a back door to the minister’s vehicle and we drove away. Everyone was fine. It was quick. Swift. Professional. Painless. The whole incident might have lasted five minutes, but my heart was in my throat the whole time.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I follow the events surrounding Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro being accused of berating a physician and intimidating citizens in response to a Facebook meme and alleged threats made to his wife, Andrea Shandro, regarding their part ownership in a private health insurance company, Vital Partners.

Though I haven’t seen or read the threats, and I sincerely hope they weren’t dangerous or serious, I have seen the Facebook meme, and to call it derogatory is to be a bit hyperbolic.

People are losing their jobs. People are getting sick. The person responsible for health care in Alberta is worried about losing Facebook friends.

Now, having worked as a New Democrat in Alberta, I can’t imagine what it’s like to have anyone say something critical of my work on the internet and have my friends and neighbours share it…

As part of my work, I helped manage social media accounts for a handful of female politicians, including two women health ministers. I’ve seen what social media attacks look like. I’ve seen the kind of vitriol spewed at them daily. Bullying, defamation and harassment don’t come close to describing some of it, and I know none of it came close to what some other women in politics have experienced. I also saw these ministers able to keep their focus on the critical portfolios they were responsible for, rather than on their mentions.

There is a process for dealing with concerning or threatening emails and social media posts. It doesn’t involve politicians or their staff harassing constituents. You report threats to the EPU. They are the professionals who advise you on whether the threat is serious and if you should go to the person’s house to yell at them.

Just kidding.

The point is, there are folks who know what they are doing when it comes to keeping ministers and those around them safe, and that’s who should be dealing with any threats the Shandros were receiving. I only felt the need to use this process a few times, and only when something felt a bit off. Thankfully never because of a threat to myself, and thankfully everything always turned out fine.

I can understand why Shandro feels passionately.

I love my partner too.

I get upset when people say things to hurt her. I get worried when people say things to make her feel unsafe. I can’t imagine any circumstance in which I wouldn’t respond passionately to defend her, as Shandro says he was doing for her wife. That’s why I was really concerned when Jason Kenney’s opposition staffers doxed her Twitter account and put it on an enemies list last year. I was also pretty freaked out when they started stalking my roommate and releasing creepy videos online around the same time. When a conservative staffer snapped a picture of me smoking by a no smoking sign at the Legislature, I just thought that was weird. Just don’t tell my grandma, man.

But joking aside, it can get pretty rough when these things start happening, close to home, you know?

The fact remains, the Facebook meme that enraged Shandro wasn’t threatening. Frankly, compared to what one sees regularly on the #ableg feed, it’s not really even that bad.

Shandro’s statement in response to all of this doesn’t take any responsibility for what was a significant failure of judgement and character during a time when he should be bringing his best to his work.

Surely even the minister himself must wonder in hindsight why at some point on the way to confront a neighbour in person about an internet meme he didn’t ask himself, “should I be doing this right now, or ever?”

The statement does, however, fit with his government’s serial habit of playing the victim and mobilizing its resources to intimidate citizens when deflecting criticism. The language makes clear that a physician criticizing Shandro is doing something he shouldn’t, that Albertans expressing concerns about a minister’s potential perceived conflict of interest is unacceptable, and that the only folks who should feel wronged in any of this are the Shandros.

The minister, for his part, apologized for getting distracted.

Thankfully, Shandro pledged not to let Facebook distract him anymore, and I think that’s great. Every politician should avoid looking at their notifications. But this incident shows that it might just be time for Shandro to put the phone down.

Besides, the very capable communications people at Alberta Health and Alberta Health Services can handle communicating with Albertans about all that pesky public health care system stuff that doesn’t seem to be his priority. In a pandemic.

When I’ve felt like social media isn’t the best presence in my life, I’ve replaced it with more productive things, like when I deleted Twitter and Facebook from my phone and downloaded Duolingo. Ahora, mi español es perfecto! Shandro may want to consider some other projects he can direct his passion towards, perhaps the health care system serving over four million people he is responsible for. In a pandemic.

In all seriousness, during these uncertain and sometimes scary times, citizens want to feel assured that their leaders are focused on the things they are worried about. The perception that the government isn’t prioritizing the well-being of the people it serves can be detrimental to the public trust at a critical time. Just look south of the border.

Tyler Shandro is still new at this. He says he knows what he signed up for when he got into politics.

I thought I did too, but working in politics comes with many surprises, not all of which are pleasant.

I never saw myself putting my body between a candidate and a man inches away from his face yelling about how we wanted to make his children gay. I never predicted having to eject someone from the campaign office I was managing for hate speech. I didn’t think any of my aunts would block me during an election. I didn’t anticipate far right websites posting videos of my friends and making petitions to get them fired.

But I did expect a few mean things to be said about me on Facebook, and I mostly tried not to let it ruin my day.

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