Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Thursday she is “profoundly disappointed” that a member of her team leaked secret recordings of meetings with her and her public health team, where she regularly gives recommendations to Alberta’s COVID-19 response team.
“The confidential, internal conversations have been shared – actions that are a violation of the public service oath and code of conduct. This is a personal betrayal, and a betrayal of the trust that our hard-working team has placed in each other,” Alberta’s chief medical officer of health said ahead of her provincial COVID-19 update.
CBC News published the leaked recordings on Thursday, which appear to highlight tensions between Hinshaw and the Alberta government pandemic response team.
Hinshaw said the recording referenced in the story was “taken out of context” and showed only a snapshot of wider discussions that happened in the days before and after the recordings were taken.
She went on to say the meetings where she gives health advice on the health and well-being of Albertans in confidence, as is her legislated role, are meant to be a “safe space,” but that process “has been violated.” She reiterated again that her advice has always been respectfully listened to by Alberta’s elected officials.
“I do not dictate every detail of each policy decision and I should not,” she said.
“I was not elected by Albertans. The final decisions are up to elected officials who were chosen by Albertans. This is how democracy works.”
Health Minister Tyler Shandro also addressed the recordings Thursday, saying they attempted to undermine the hard work Hinshaw has done in the interest of Albertans.
“The story this morning concerned me for one reason only: that it violated Dr. Hinshaw’s confidence and it embarrassed her,” Shandro said. “I called Dr. Hinshaw this morning to tell her that she has nothing to apologize for, and she has my complete confidence.”
Shandro offered his own and the government’s support for Hinshaw, saying “she’s one of the finest medical officers of health in the country.”
Hinshaw admitted Thursday that she doesn’t expect she and the government will always agree on the best way forward through the pandemic, but said having multiple opinions are “critical” to making the best decisions.
“While the recordings that were referenced in some of the news stories today indicate that, at times I have felt frustrated, as I am a human being, the reality is that it is critical to have multiple perspectives and that those perspectives are all heard,” she said.
“And in that in that conversation, those elected leaders know my perspective and they take that into account and make the final decision as the representatives of the province, which is their role.”
She also said it would be inappropriate, and a “violation of her professional integrity” if she were to share the recommendations she makes in confidence to the government, herself.
Hinshaw said she doesn’t know who took the recordings, but stressed the government will work to find the person or people responsible for leaking the recordings.
“There will be an investigation to determine who has done this because, as I said, this has serious repercussions and is a violation of the oath that all of us have taken,” she said.
Hinshaw said she has about six direct reports in her office, but considers the roughly 40 people working in the emergency operations centre and incident commander’s office to be part of her team.
Hinshaw was questioned repeatedly on Wednesday about how much of her public health recommendations and advice were accepted by the premier and ministers in the most recent decision to impose new restrictions across Alberta, but she didn’t give a clear answer.
When asked whether she advocated for stricter measures, and to share what recommendations she made that were rejected, Hinshaw would only say her advice was wide-ranging, and that she felt she was respectfully listened to when presenting to cabinet.
Leaked recordings could break down trust in process: political scientist
According to University of Alberta political scientist Jared Wesley, a leak like this from a government employee is a “last resort for public servants who feel government is acting illegally or unconstitutionally or in flagrant violation of the law.”
“There are other avenues for public servants to pursue including whistleblower protections that don’t involve subverting a democratically elected government,” Wesley said.
He said leaks like this break down trust and may cause public servants, like Hinshaw, to frame her advice in a different way if she never knows when what she brings to cabinet might be leaked to the public.
“We want our public servants to provide fearless advice to elected officials,” Wesley said. “Some of that frankness can be removed from their advice if they worry their comments are being recorded.”
Wesley also said it’s important to distinguish between whistleblowing — which has a formal framework — and a public servant breaking their oath to the Crown.
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