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Dismissal of Dr. Deena Hinshaw from Indigenous health team prompted Alberta ethics investigation

After Dr. Deena Hinshaw was briefly hired and quickly removed from a position with an Indigenous health team at Alberta Health Services earlier this year, more than 100 physicians signed a letter calling for an ethics investigation.

Unbeknownst to the public, they got their wish.

CBC News has learned that Alberta Ethics Commissioner Marguerite Trussler opened an inquiry into the matter some months ago.

The timing and current status of the investigation is unclear, but two people who resigned to protest what they saw as interference in staffing a health position told CBC News they were interviewed by Trussler in October.

One of those people is Dr. Esther Tailfeathers, a celebrated Indigenous physician who led the team that selected Hinshaw.

The other is Dr. Braden Manns, a former senior executive at AHS to whom Tailfeathers’ team reported.

The Office of the Ethics Commissioner declined to comment or confirm the investigation, as the Conflicts of Interest Act prevents it from doing so.

The ethics commissioner is limited by legislation to investigating the conduct of members of the legislature and those in ministerial positions along narrow definitions of conflict of interest.

Such matters generally deal with actions taken to benefit the private interest of a member of the legislature. Her office’s website states that she “does not have the power to deal with every situation that the public thinks is ‘unethical’.”

The letters sent by Trussler to Tailfeathers and Manns in August, which CBC News has obtained, state that she is investigating “the revocation of the appointment of Dr. Hinshaw” but give no further information on the scope of the investigation.

A job offered, then rescinded

The controversy centres around the revocation of a job offer for Hinshaw in June 2023, days before she was to start a new role with the Indigenous Wellness Core, an AHS program focused on Indigenous health care.

The role, Public Health and Preventive Medicine Lead, was posted in January and a selection committee evaluated a shortlist of candidates.

Alberta Ethics Commissioner Marguerite Trussler opened an investigation into the dismissal of Hinshaw from a part-time position with Alberta Health Services. (Alberta Legislature)

The role was a key part of a strategy to broadly advance Indigenous health care in Alberta, according to Tailfeathers.

“In order to drive a strategy forward and begin to make public health measures, we needed a public health physician,” Tailfeathers told CBC News in an interview.

The committee selected Hinshaw, not only for her background in public health policy but for her excellent relationships with Indigenous leaders.

As CBC News reported in June, the approval to hire Hinshaw came from Dr. John Cowell, the then administrator of AHS and its most senior decision-maker.

It was an unusual approval for a part-time role that didn’t oversee other positions, according to Manns.

He says that was due to the unique sensitivities around Hinshaw, who was a high-profile and controversial figure during the pandemic as Alberta’s chief medical officer of health before Alberta Premier Danielle Smith fired her in November 2022.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw out as Alberta’s chief medical officer of health

The Alberta government has replaced Dr. Deena Hinshaw as chief medical officer of health with Alberta Health Services vice-president Dr. Mark Joffe. Premier Danielle Smith had said she would replace Hinshaw when she was sworn in.

On June 1, an internal announcement welcoming Hinshaw to a new job was shared within AHS. It was quickly leaked online, prompting outrage from the UCP base that elevated Smith to the premier’s office.

Hinshaw was removed shortly after, according to Manns and Tailfeathers.

Both resigned from AHS in protest of the decision. In interviews with CBC News, both described it as a heavy-handed blow to Indigenous health care, both in practical terms as well as trust relationships between Indigenous communities and health care institutions.

“It crossed my red line, and not just by a little,” says Manns.

Comment sought

Reached by phone, Cowell declined to comment on whether he has testified in the ethics investigation.

In an email response, Hinshaw declined to comment.

CBC News reached out to several other people in AHS leadership roles during the incident, but none responded.

CBC News asked the premier’s office whether Smith or her staff had given testimony to Trussler, and whether there was any involvement from political staff in revoking Hinshaw’s job offer.

In response, press secretary Sam Blackett sent a brief email.

“Any questions regarding ethics commissioner inquiries should be directed to the office of the ethics commissioner,” he wrote.

“As we’ve said before, final staffing decisions lie with AHS.”

A woman in a red suit gives a speech, with her image projected on a screen behind her.
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith fired Hinshaw as chief medical officer of health in November 2022. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

In June, soon after CBC News reported the details of Hinshaw’s brief employment and dismissal, Smith was asked about the situation. At the time, she said she’d been briefed on the situation, but questions should be directed to Cowell.

Little known about investigation

Tailfeathers and Manns appeared separately before Trussler, in-person as required, on Oct. 4. They were instructed to bring all documentation and correspondence related to the appointment and dismissal of Hinshaw.

By law, any report by Trussler would be given to the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, who is required to present it to the legislature when in session, and to make copies publicly available when the legislature is not sitting.

The Office of the Speaker said it has not yet received a report.

A woman in a toque and coat stands in a wintery field
Dr. Esther Tailfeathers was senior medical director with Alberta Health Services’ Indigneous Wellness Core. She is one of the people who has been called to give testimony in the investigation. (EstherTailfeat1/Twitter)

“I felt that rescinding Dr. Hinshaw’s contract was unethical and it was wrong for many reasons,” says Manns.

“This was saying that Dr. Hinshaw, who’s a physician, that she can never work in Alberta again.”

Tailfeathers sees the removal of Hinshaw from a key Indigenous health position as part of a broader ethical failing.

“The bigger picture is that it is unethical for us in Alberta not to do anything about the drug poisoning deaths that we’re seeing, and the rising mortality rate, and the fact that Indigenous people make up a large portion of those who are dying. Our population is dying seven times more than the non Indigenous population in this province,” she says.

“In order to drive a strategy forward and begin to make public health measures, we needed a public health physician.”

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