Witness testimony on the first day of the Law Society of Alberta’s (LSA) hearing of allegations of Tyler Shandro’s conduct focused on two of the three allegations.
Shandro, then the province’s health minister, is accused of conduct “deserving of sanction” by the lawyers’ regulatory body relating to a trio of events.
The first citation surrounds Shandro attending the Calgary home of Dr. Mukarram Zaidi, allegedly shouting at the doctor in the driveway.
The second involves Shandro’s access to and use of private, unlisted cell phone numbers to call doctors outside of work hours.
The final involves Shandro’s reply to an email from a private citizen to his wife, an email that was sent using his ministerial email and threatening the matter be escalated to law enforcement.
Lawyers arguing for the Law Society of Alberta – Ken McEwan and Kyle Thompson in Vancouver – said Shandro’s behaviour was discourteous and discreditable, and he was discouraging members of the public in engaging in appropriate political discourse and criticism.
Shandro’s lawyer Grant Stapon’s opening argument said the MLA for Calgary-Acadia was acting in his capacity as the health minister, a husband and a father — and not in his capacity as a lawyer.
Stapon also argued Shandro wasn’t responsible for getting the private phone numbers of a pair of doctors.
All of the incidents stem back to the tearing up of the Alberta government’s agreement with doctors back in February 2020, and the changes to billing codes.
Zaidi was the first witness called by lawyers representing the LSA.
Just over a month after the Alberta government tore up the agreement with doctors, Zaidi said he came across a social media post that had the words: “So every Albertan I can kick off health care is another client we can sign up to Vital Partners! We’re going to be rich!” in a thought bubble over a picture of Shandro.
After reading about Vital Partners’ business operations, Zaidi re-posted the meme in an effort to raise concerns of a conflict of interest the then-health minister appeared to have in relation to the third-party health benefits brokerage.
Shandro and his wife own 100 per cent of the voting shares of Vital Partners. A March 2020 letter from the ethics commissioner said Shandro’s 50 per cent of the shares were held in a blind trust.
Zaidi said he learned of the brokerage’s business model and Shandro’s wife’s role as leader in the company before posting the meme.
Shortly after, Shandro and his wife went to the Zaidi home.
After his sons came in to tell their father somebody wanted to talk with him, Zaidi recalls finding a visibly upset Shandro standing there, with Shandro’s wife holding him.
“He was very loud,” Zaidi told the LSA panel. “That’s why I didn’t approach the end of the driveway.”
Zaidi testified Shandro was yelling, “You can’t do this to us. We’re getting death threats.”
Zaidi also recalled Shandro’s wife said, “He doesn’t care about us. He cares about his money.”
Zaidi said Shandro then said, “I’ll give you your codes on Monday.”
Stapon disputed Zaidi’s account of the conversation, but the doctor stuck by his original testimony under cross examination.
Seeing Shandro was in poor shape to negotiate, Zaidi went into his house and deleted the post.
The family doctor later tweeted that despite disagreements doctors may have with the then-health minister, “we do not support any threat against the Honorable Minister Tyler Shandro and his family. We support civilised discussion.”
Stapon asked whether Zaidi was aware of the power of social media to incite passions and whether the family doctor received a memo from the Alberta Medical Association admonishing cyberbullying of public officials issued the day before the driveway incident.
Zaidi said he was a user of many social media platforms, but did not see the AMA memo until days after the incident.
Stapon asked whether the doctor was aware of Shandro’s profession as a lawyer in the driveway interaction, as opposed to as health minister or family member, and Zaidi repeatedly said he was aware of Shandro as a lawyer, as well as the power dynamics between Shandro as health minister and Zaidi as a family doctor who bills to Alberta Health.
Zaidi said given the tone and tenor of UCP government communication of and towards doctors — “bullying and villanizing” in Zaidi’s opinion — his only option to bring his concerns about the possible conflict of interest was to go to social media.
Shortly after the driveway interaction, Shandro posted a statement on social media about his wife being “subjected to an online campaign of defamation” which included harassment and threats.
The former health minister also noted the visit to Zaidi’s home.
“On Saturday, when I saw that a long-time political acquaintance and neighbour had posted something to social media that was contributing to attacks against my wife, I went to speak to him and implore him to cease propagating this false information,” Shandro wrote at the time.
Zaidi said he did not share information of the incident with the media until he was approached by an investigative journalist.
The story going public resulted in threats to Zaidi’s office, on social media, and on doctor review websites.
“The death threats were the worst — attacking me and my family — that was the worst,” Zaidi said.
Zaidi and Shandro had known each other from sitting on the board of the UCP community association of Calgary-West, going back to 2018. The doctor said they were on a first-name basis.
“Friend cannot be used (as) a term. But we know one another.”
Zaidi had a personal matter to attend to midday Tuesday and had his testimony paused, to continue on Wednesday.
Accessing private phone numbers
On Feb. 26, 2020, Shandro and Kenney made a funding announcement at the Red Deer Regional Hospital.
Independently, Dr. Lauralee Dukeshire and Dr. John Julyan-Gudgeon attended the announcement at the hospital they both do work in.
With the news conference being closed off to invitees only, the doctors used their knowledge of the hospital layout to try to intercept the government officials and share their concerns about changes to the doctors fee schedule.
Julyan-Gudgeon tried to share his written statement about the changes to public health care with Shandro while walking toward an elevator, then entered the elevator with the six-person government entourage.
“I was pushed out (by security),” he said.
Dukeshire, who has since relocated her practice to Nanaimo, B.C., saw a colleague shake hands with Kenney and as Shandro entered the elevator, she said she locked eyes with him and shouted “You’re a liar and a cheat.”
“I was upset about the fact that I felt Shandro had mischaracterizing physicians (and their pay) in the media,” she said.
The next day, she saw she received a voice message from the health minister while driving back home from Edmonton on her day off.
“My initial reaction was disbelief and a bit of fear,” she recalled after listening to the message.
“The power differential between us — I felt he had tracked me down to say, ‘We know who you are and we can find you’ 36 hours after I had said something insulting to him.’”
She said Shandro identified himself in the message and invited her to call him back.
Later that same evening, Julyan-Gudgeon received a call from an unknown number while reading a book in bed. He recognized the voice as Shandro’s and they had a conversation about how to address his public health-care concerns.
He said he never met Shandro prior to that day in the Red Deer hospital, nor did he think he’d ever get a call from the health minister, being a family doctor in central Alberta.
But the power differential between the men concerned Julyan-Gudgeon.
“This was someone using their power to gain personal information about you, letting you know they have it, letting you know they can get it,” he said.
“The feeling was, you can be found within a short order of you being an inconvenience to the minister.”
After seeking advice from the AMA and some of her colleagues, Dukeshire called Shandro, having a 15- to 20-minute conversation about her concerns.
She said he asked why she preferred binding arbitration to mediation as a means to resolve the conflict between his ministry and the doctors association.
She said he quickly became “defensive” and “adversarial” when she expressed a preference for binding arbitration.
Dukeshire also said Shandro made allegations of sexual harassment involving AMA staff, allegations that left her wondering why he was sharing and not addressing given his role.
In a statement to Global News, the AMA said it was unable to comment on any sexual assault allegations coming from the health minister or his office, given the scant details provided in the testimony.
“That said, we would of course never support harassment of any kind – regardless of circumstances,” an AMA spokesperson said.
Neither doctors specifically asked for Shandro to call them, nor did they consent to the release or use of their personal, unlisted cell phone numbers for communication from the health minister.
Victoria Lane, the chief privacy officer for AHS, was tapped by then-AHS CEO Dr. Verna Yiu to investigate the release of private contact information to the health minister.
“The provision of personal telephone numbers of two family physicians to Minister Shandro constitutes a breach of the Albertan Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP),” Lane wrote on April 27, 2020.
Lane recovered text messages between Shandro and AHS VP of communications Colleen Turner, and shared them with the LSA panel.
“Who was the doctor who followed me to yell at me?” Shandro texted. “I’m willing to talk to him. Can you find out?”
“I’ll get his name and number,” Turner replied. “I know who you mean.”
After describing a second individual, Shandro texted “She called me a liar and a cheat. If you know her too, I’m happy to speak to her.”
Turner provided Shandro with the doctor’s names and numbers via text message.
“It was the fact that we shared personal telephone numbers without explicit consent of the doctors that was our failing as an organisation,” Lane said. “When somebody tells us (a phone number is) personal, we use it as such.”
Lane noted her investigation showed Shandro was not notified that the numbers he was given were personal and unlisted, nor did he confirm the numbers being private. Lane also said Shandro didn’t confirm the doctors’ consent to contact them.
Julyan-Gudgeon asked Shandro where the minister got his phone number, and was told AHS provided the number.
After the call, the Red Deer-area doctor made a complaint to the privacy commission, hoping it would result in some restitution. After determining it would “only put more of a target on my back,” Julyan-Gudgeon withdrew the complaint.
Dukeshire said the conversation left an impression on her.
“I wouldn’t trust him as a lawyer. A number of his behaviours were deceptive,” Dukeshire said. “I thought he was trying to trip me up with the mediation versus arbitration distinction, and I felt that was pretty disingenuous and not appropriate.
“It decreased my trust in the legal profession. I would be more wary of any lawyers I was working with after interacting with Mr. Shandro.”
The hearing is scheduled for two more days, with Zaidi and Julyan-Gudgeon expected to complete their testimony on Wednesday.
More witnesses are expected to be called – including Shandro, who is now the justice minister, and his wife – and lawyers for the law society and Shandro will make their arguments.
Sanctions can range from disbarment at the most severe, to suspension, reprimand, imposing conditions of legal practice, or payment of penalties.