Alberta health minister used confidential information to call protesting doctors
Shandro called physicians after hours on personal, unlisted cellphone numbers
When Dr. John Julyan-Gudgeon went to a hospital event to protest health-care cuts, he didn't expect it to lead to an after-hours phone call on his personal cellphone from the health minister.
But that's exactly what happened.
The doctor attended a provincial funding announcement at the Red Deer Regional Hospital on Feb. 26. While there, he says, he attempted to approach Minister Tyler Shandro to explain his issues with the province's proposed health-care revamp.
Shandro's office says the doctor was persistent — Julyan-Gudgeon agreed the interaction was a bit tense — and security advised the minister to move along. Shandro later asked a public relations staff member at Alberta Health Services (AHS) for the man's phone number.
At around 9 p.m. the following night, Julyan-Gudgeon's cellphone rang unexpectedly. He recognized the voice but asked anyway.
"Who is this?"
"It's Tyler Shandro."
The conversation was "neutral," Julyan-Gudgeon says. The minister listened to his concerns about the cuts and gave the doctor his contact information if he had suggestions in the future.
He asked how the minister got his personal number (contact information he guards carefully) and Shandro said he got it from AHS.
Julyan-Gudgeon says he was never contacted to ask his consent to disclose the unlisted cell number.
"I was shocked and concerned and a bit intimidated," he said.
He filed a formal complaint with the privacy commissioner this week.
He wasn't the only one to get a call that night.
'The health minister tracked me down'
Another doctor checked her cellphone to find a voicemail from the health minister saying he'd got her personal number from AHS. She'd attended the same event but hadn't spoken to Shandro or agreed to provide him with any contact information. She returned his call later.
"It felt intimidating," she said. "The health minister tracked me down."
CBC News has agreed to withhold her identity because of concerns for her privacy and career.
The minister's office has confirmed both these interactions.
Colleen Turner, a public affairs official at AHS, says she tracked down the doctors' phone numbers for the minister after he asked for them. She "assumed their consent was implied" and was trying to be helpful.
"In retrospect, I should have obtained consent prior to sharing physician contact information."
AHS has informed the Alberta Medical Association of the incident and said it wouldn't happen again.
Shandro's office says the minister was unaware the numbers were improperly procured and just wanted to talk to the doctors.
"The Minister wouldn't have wanted a number that was private or unlisted," they said in an email.
Doctors vs. the minister
Both doctors say they are troubled by the precedent this sets for interactions between physicians and the minister.
"It is a concern that people in positions of authority can reach down through the organizations that they're supposed to be leading in moral and ethical ways in order to gain information to promote their own personal intentions," Julyan-Gudgeon said.
"This ability to communicate, this relationship between the ministry and doctors is just turning sour."
Julyan-Gudgeon says he was so shaken by the unsolicited call that he wasn't able to effectively communicate his worries about the health-care changes.
In an additional statement provided after the publication of this story, Shandro's office indicated during that phone call "at no point did Dr. Julyan-Gudgeon indicate that he in any way objected to being contacted."
In the subsequent weeks, messages from Julyan-Gudgeon have become "harassing," the minister's office says.
Security has advised the minister to stop communication with the doctor — who contends that while his public tweets have been adversarial, his private text messages to the minister have been constructive, something Shandro's office later confirmed.
The physicians are questioning these potential breaches of privacy law and the level of ministerial access to private citizens' information, but it isn't the only controversy Shandro has faced in his interactions with doctors.
The United Conservative government's plans for health care have been widely criticized by doctors and nurses. Many of these changes have been suspended because of COVID-19.
Julyan-Gudgeon was part of a group that sent an open letter to the government asking them to pause those changes.
As the provincial face of this file, the health minister has been embroiled in the backlash.
In March, Shandro and his wife were also accused of berating a Calgary doctor at his house in front of his wife and children for reposting a derogatory meme on Facebook.
CBC News also obtained email exchanges between Shandro and private citizens, which included a threat to send the legislature's security services after one person.
The NDP called for Shandro's resignation over the incidents, a request that Premier Jason Kenney brushed aside.
Cellphone numbers: essential to the job or sacrosanct information?
One privacy expert has concerns about the message it sends to have politicians randomly calling citizens who disagree with them.
"That's tantamount to obtaining a personal home address and knocking on the door and saying 'Hi, I'm your boss the minister, I'd like to have a chat with you,'" said Sharon Polsky, president of the Privacy and Access Council of Canada.
"Home information is sacrosanct."
Polsky says if information is used for another purpose than what it was collected for without permission, it's usually a "violation of the law."
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Under the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act, personal information can only be disclosed to a third party if the individual has consented — or under very limited circumstances without consent.
For example, a public body can be granted access but only if the information is essential to performing their jobs. Information can also be released to a Member of the Legislative Assembly, but only if a citizen has explicitly requested their help solving a particular problem.
You have to meet a high bar to be legally given access to personal email addresses or phone numbers.
If a physician feels that their personal information has been improperly collected, used or disclosed, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta says they can file a complaint. Julyan-Gudgeon has, the second doctor does not plan to.
Polsky says she can't think of anything in Alberta's privacy laws that would justify Shandro's access and use of private cellphone numbers, especially outside regular business hours.
It might have been totally innocent, but once again the perception, the appearance of impropriety is there. - Sharon Polsky, Privacy and Access Council of Canada
"It might have been totally innocent, but once again the perception, the appearance of impropriety is there," she said.
The privacy commissioner investigated a similar case in 2013. The minister of education had used information from the Alberta's Teacher Registry System to send a mass email to 34,000 teachers. Dozens of complaints were filed about the unauthorized disclosure of personal email addresses.
The investigation found the education minister contravened the Privacy Act and concluded it was inappropriate for him to have used the school databases to contact teachers on their personal emails.
Lack of education and training on privacy laws is also a big issue, Polsky says. She adds that even if staff are aware of the rules, having someone in a superior rank request confidential information can create a power imbalance.
"[Staff] can't afford to just to speak out and say something that might be construed as challenging the sovereignty of a minister."
She says either Shandro or someone in his office should have known to ask about the source of the information.
The privacy issues are a principal concern, but the two doctors are also distressed about these escalating spats in the middle of a pandemic.
Julyan-Gudgeon has offered to withdraw his complaint to the privacy commissioner and speak with Shandro, if the ministry shows they are willing to rebuild trust and make progress with the doctors.
"I'm starting to wonder whether or not we can have an effective relationship between the doctors and this ministry. All of this just seems to be turning into a war and we shouldn't be at war," Julyan-Gudgeon lamented.