On June 2, a screengrab of an announcement welcoming Dr. Deena Hinshaw to her new position began circulating on social media.
Hinshaw was Alberta’s chief medical officer of health until she was fired last November by Danielle Smith, shortly after she became premier. Most recently, Hinshaw appeared to have a new job with the Indigenous Wellness Core (IWC), a program of Alberta Health Services focused on Indigenous health-care.
Outrage ensued from many online quarters — particularly from those opposed to Hinshaw’s support of masking and vaccines during the pandemic.
However after the announcement notice leaked on social media, AHS issued a statement: “Dr. Hinshaw is not employed by AHS.”
This was true: according to multiple sources, her job offer had already been revoked, over the wishes of the IWC team who hired her in May. Hinshaw was due to start June 5.
As a result of that decision from higher-up, the medical lead of the IWC, Dr. Esther Tailfeathers, resigned.
“I’ve worked to the position I have because of integrity and because I’m genuinely concerned about Indigenous health,” she told CBC News in an interview while also confirming the authenticity of the announcement notice.
“I thought they valued that and I thought that my experience and wisdom would help guide making some changes and actually seeing some better outcomes in Indigenous health.”
Tailfeathers, a celebrated and award-winning physician, said having a doctor selected by the IWC team be vetoed from above was only the latest example of an old theme in Canadian politics.
“Metaphorically, to me it’s like the Indian agent still exists. The Indian agent thought he was carrying out the Queen’s wishes and the Indians’ voice didn’t matter.”
Approval came from the top: source
The position Hinshaw was hired for was Public Health & Preventative Medicine Lead. It was a part-time role, and she would not have had anyone reporting to her.
Tailfeathers said the team followed all AHS protocols in the hiring process.
“What we were looking for is somebody, of course, who knew provincial public health policy and who was well-versed in public health,” she said. “We needed a candidate who was very-well versed in and understood the Indigenous side of health.”
Tailfeathers added that the team “did look for a candidate who was Indigenous.”
After every applicant was considered, Hinshaw rose to the top of the list by virtue of her experience and what multiple people described as her good rapport with Indigenous leaders.
Tailfeathers said she didn’t have hiring power herself. But the team’s chosen candidate was sent up the chain and approved. She doesn’t know how high up that approval came from.
But a person with knowledge of the situation who was not authorized to speak publicly said that Hinshaw’s hiring was atypical in that it required approval by John Cowell, the administrator of AHS.
According to Tailfeathers, the job offer was signed in May. But, in a nod to the unique circumstances of the new employee, an official internal announcement was delayed until after the provincial election.
“We wanted to respect the election process, so we waited until June 1 to make the announcement,” Tailfeathers said.
“I didn’t think it was going to make as huge an impact as it did,” she added. “I underestimated the irrational and emotional response to that.”
A polarizing figure
Early on in the pandemic, Hinshaw was a broadly celebrated medical figure leading Alberta through a public health crisis with no modern precedent. However, her star soon fell with different groups for different reasons.
To those opposed to public health measures like mask mandates, business closures or vaccines, she became a maligned and deeply resented figure.
Others who trusted the science behind those measures became skeptical of her support of lifting them, and of her willingness to accept an advisory role to Jason Kenney’s government rather than use the full powers of her office to protect public health.
But when the screenshot of the announcement of Hinshaw’s new job leaked, the outrage largely came from right-wing quarters.
Whether the decision to revoke Hinshaw’s job offer came before or after that leak is unclear. Tailfeathers said she learned of it the same day as the leak.
“I was told that this person was no longer going to work, not going to fill the position,” she said. No additional reason was given to Tailfeathers.
Asked whether there was any involvement from political staff in Hinshaw’s employment, a spokesperson for the Premier’s office did not directly answer.
“Alberta Health Services is responsible for hiring decisions and the government of Alberta does not comment on AHS personnel decisions,” wrote Sam Blackett in a one-sentence statement.
AHS declined to comment beyond their earlier statement saying Hinshaw was not an employee.
CBC News also requested comment from Hinshaw, but did not receive a response.
Smith was a vocal critic of not only Hinshaw but lockdowns and vaccine mandates prior to her becoming premier last October. Those positions along with other views on medical science became part of her political brand that won over the United Conservative Party base, which elected her leader.
After her swearing-in as premier, Smith announced she intended to fire Hinshaw, and called unvaccinated Canadians “the most discriminated-against group that I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime.”
‘Confusion and concern among many’
News of Tailfeathers’ resignation became public on Tuesday evening, when the Indigenous Heath Committee of the Alberta Medical Association released a statement on Twitter highlighting her work.
“The impact her resignation will have on Indigenous health in Alberta moving forward is unknown but there is confusion and concern among many,” wrote the committee.
Tailfeathers plans to return to her community over 200 kilometres south of Calgary and practice medicine full-time with Kainai Nation, also known as Blood Tribe.
She pointed to the various health crises disproportionately affecting Indigenous people, from infectious diseases to drug poisonings. She noted that during her tenure with the IWC, the average life expectancy gap between Albertans and Indigenous people in Alberta grew from 13 years to 18 years.
“I’m not shy to say my age, I’m 62, going on 63,” Tailfeathers said. “So this is the year I’m expected to die,” she said referencing the average life expectancy gap.
While it may be Hinshaw’s name that gets headlines, the central concern in all of this for Tailfeathers is that Indigenous health outcomes in Alberta continue to worsen as even relatively low-level staffing decisions in health-care get politicized.
“There are gatekeepers who prefer the status quo and Indigenous health will not improve unless the system includes Indigenous voices,” including Indigenous decision-making, she said.
As she leaves her role, she takes several lessons from this experience.
“It says to me that physicians are not safe. Even within the protocols that are set out to protect physicians within this province,” Tailfeathers said. “We are not safe because those decisions can be rescinded at some level, I don’t know, but at a higher level than where I sit.”