Alberta hires new chief medical examiner to lead problem-plagued office

Alberta has chosen Manitoba’s retired former chief medical examiner as the province’s top pathologist.

Dr. Thambirajah Balachandra is province’s fourth medical examiner in five years

Dr. Thambirajah Balachandra retired as Manitoba's chief medical examiner in 2016. He is now Alberta's chief medical examiner. (Ryan Hicks/CBC)

Alberta has chosen Manitoba's retired former chief medical examiner as the province's top pathologist.

Dr. Thambirajah Balachandra was appointed through an order in council Thursday by Alberta Justice Minister Kaycee Madu. He will be paid about $400,000 a year, about the same as his predecessor.

Balachanda retired, at age 71, as Manitoba's chief medical examiner (CME) in 2016. He joined the Alberta office of the chief medical examiner in 2018 and has also been an associate clinical professor of pathology at the University of Alberta. 

At his retirement in 2016, Balachandra had served as Manitoba's CME since July 1999 and, as CBC Manitoba reported, he was well respected within medical and justice circles. By his own estimation, he has testified in court more than 150 times. 

He ordered a number of fact-finding inquests into high-profile deaths, including the judicial inquest into the death of Brian Sinclair, a double amputee who died while waiting 34 hours for care in a Winnipeg emergency room in September 2008. 

Balachandra also ordered inquests into fire-related deaths on Manitoba First Nations and suicides of youths at the Manitoba Youth Centre. 

Another high-profile inquest examined the death of 14-year Tracia Owen, who hung herself in 2005 while in the care of Child and Family Services in Winnipeg.

He told CBC Manitoba he always took a practical, common sense and collaborative approach to his work, an approach he will no doubt need to employ in Alberta's troubled office of the chief medical examiner. 

Problem-plagued office

Alberta's last CME, Dr. Elizabeth Brooks-Lim, resigned in January, five months after CBC News broadcast video that showed a body being dragged along the floor of a refrigerated semi-trailer outside the CME office in Edmonton. Brooks-Lim had ordered the trailer's use in response to a sudden influx of bodies.

Brooks-Lim was appointed CME in December 2016 following a string of controversies. 

Her predecessor, Dr. Jeffery Gofton, quit after less than 18 months on the job. Gofton assumed the post from Dr. Anny Sauvageau, who is suing Alberta Justice. She alleges her contract, which expired at the end of 2014, was not renewed after she stood up to political interference in the office's operation.

A 2016 report by Alberta's Public Interest Commissioner concluded Sauvageau had been treated unfairly by Alberta Justice officials who had, in part, used complaints they knew were unsubstantiated to justify not renewing her contract. 

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is involved in another scandal. In January, CBC's The Fifth Estate revealed senior Alberta Justice officials were aware of a report that raised serious questions about the findings of Dr. Evan Matshes in Calgary a decade ago related to several murder charges. 

A special prosecutor has been hired to review the cases. 

Matshes declined to speak to The Fifth Estate but in a statement he said he stands by his work.