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The hiring and unhiring of Dr. Deena Hinshaw warrants answers that we aren’t getting

Consequences are spreading after the power play against Alberta’s former top public health doctor and her removal from a role supporting Indigenous health. 

Consequences have spread beyond the former public health official’s employment status.

A split image of a woman and man, glancing away from each other.

We know who hired Dr. Deena Hinshaw to a new role supporting public and preventive health in Alberta.

We don’t know who un-hired her.

But we’re starting to learn about the consequences of that somebody’s decision to rescind the appointment of Alberta’s former top public health doctor to a role in Alberta Health Services serving Indigenous people.

Surely, there would have been consequences of letting Hinshaw’s hire stand — mostly of the political kind, and largely within the base of Premier Danielle Smith.

The consequences of nixing her new job at AHS go beyond the political, and appear to have cascaded.

First, AHS’ Indigenous Wellness Core is deprived of the new public health and preventive medicine lead it had just hired and oriented, days before she was supposed to begin her job in early June.

Subsequently, this group’s senior medical director, Dr. Esther Tailfeathers, resigned out of frustration with the mysteriously vetoed hire. The tally, then, is at least two senior doctors gone from the group in AHS focused on the Albertans with some of the population’s most challenging health outcomes and risks.

I say, “at least” two senior doctors are gone in wake of this, because much higher up AHS’ org chart, the agency also lost the executive who oversaw the Indigenous Wellness Core a few days after Hinshaw’s un-hiring, CBC News can confirm.

Dr. Braden Manns resigned as the health agency’s interim vice-president of provincial clinical excellence on June 11. He detailed his reasons in a lengthy letter to Dr. John Cowell, hired by Premier Smith as AHS’ administrator, or one-man board of directors.

Manns confirmed his resignation from his executive-level AHS post in an email to CBC News on Thursday. He would not state his reasons for leaving.

Q & non-A

There are so many questions about the hiring of the prominent figure and the abrupt cancellation that began this chain of events at AHS. Most of them start with “why.”

The agency in charge of most of Alberta’s hospitals, and the province’s largest employer, has no interest in answering any questions on this.

“We have nothing to add,” an AHS spokesperson wrote in an email.

The only thing the agency’s communications staff had added thus far in this unusual saga was obfuscation. In early June, after images of Hinshaw’s hiring announcement emerged on social media — and set off torrents of outrage from conservatives who loathed Hinshaw’s pandemic performance — AHS released a three-sentence statement, one that bears some annotation:

  1. “AHS doesn’t speak to personnel matters.” (Context: this is a common statement, and the terse response given to CBC News when it asked about Manns.)

  2. “Dr. Hinshaw is not employed by AHS.” (Oh, a foray into personnel matters. It was technically true, as her job offer was by then revoked. But it led some Albertans to question if the real hiring notice that Tailfeathers authored June 1 was fake.)

  3. “AHS is reviewing the position and remains firmly committed to working with Indigenous communities and working to improve health outcomes for all communities and populations.” (In retrospect, this could have served as a clue that a job existed and then did not. Regardless, the agency’s decision to nix Hinshaw’s post has clearly had an impact on AHS’ ability to work with Indigenous communities, beyond only the public health doctor’s employment status.)

This not-really-a-clarification from AHS may have been the last word on this, were it not for the dogged journalism of colleagues Taylor Lambert and Janet French, and Tailfeathers’s decision to resign on principle and then go public with her frustration that the Indigenous wellness unit’s hiring decision was overruled and rescinded. “It’s like the Indian agent still exists,” she said, referring to the federal officials who used to control many aspects of Indigenous life.

Even without any clarity from AHS, we know there was politics and sensitivity in the call to hire Hinshaw in the first place. Her employment as a relatively low-level medical professional needed approval at the highest level at AHS. Cowell, the administrator, had to sign off before the job offer was signed in May.

Then, the internal announcement was delayed until after the election, given what the name Deena Hinshaw meant to some Albertans.

A protest crowd in which people are carrying large signs.

The doctor who’d united Albertans and won their trust early in the COVID pandemic gradually become a controversial figure, as former premier Jason Kenney’s cabinet whipsawed Albertans between public health restrictions on gatherings and businesses and then liberalizations; public refusal to set vaccine mandates followed by imposed mandates.

She became unpopular among those who wanted more assertive public health rules. But it was those who reviled the measures and deemed her a menace to free society who became a bigger force in Alberta politics, first pushing Kenney out of the UCP leadership then vaulting Smith into it.

The current premier’s plans to deal with Hinshaw became some of her top applause lines during speeches to supporters. “A lot of the bad decisions were made by Alberta Health Services on the basis of bad advice from the chief medical officer of health,” she told reporters in October, shortly after becoming premier.

In November, Smith fired Hinshaw. The replacement as Alberta’s chief medical officer of health has not conducted a news conference through the last eight months that have included air-quality-wrecking wildfire smoke and the end of mask mandates in hospitals and nursing homes.

Other employers saw value in Hinshaw’s medical expertise and advice, where Smith did not. British Columbia hired her on a temporary contract as deputy public health officer.

A woman in a toque and coat stands in a wintery field

Before that six-month term was up, Tailfeathers and her team saw Hinshaw as someone who could provide input to prevent poor health outcomes for Indigenous people — the sort of proactive medical approach that Danielle Smith said was the impetus for her idea of giving each Albertan a $300 health spending accounts for non-insured services.

Smith’s office, in their no-comment answer, maintained that AHS is responsible for hiring decisions. While this is true, it’s also clear that Smith sacked the AHS board and installed Cowell instead as a direct line into the large agency’s decisions and operations.

The premier’s vaccine-skeptic, restrictions-loathing supporters may be delighted with Hinshaw’s apparent persona-non-grata treatment in the Alberta public sector on Smith’s watch.

But somebody’s decision to reach deep into AHS operations to quash a public health and preventive medicine expert’s employment is a decision that affects more than just the one person whose contract was mysteriously shredded.


Jason Markusoff

Producer and writer

Jason Markusoff analyzes what’s happening — and what isn’t happening, but probably should be — in Calgary and sometimes farther afield. He’s written in Alberta for nearly two decades with Maclean’s magazine, the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal. He appears regularly on Power and Politics’ Power Panel and various other CBC current affairs shows. Reach him at

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