Alberta health minister accused of berating Calgary physician, 'intimidating' citizens

Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro and his wife are accused of berating a Calgary doctor at his house for reposting a derogatory meme on Facebook.

Tyler Shandro yelled at neighbour over Facebook post alleging conflict of interest

A spokesperson for Tyler Shandro confirmed the health minister and his wife went to the home of a Calgary doctor to talk to him about a meme posted on Facebook. (Manuel Carrillos/CBC)

Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro and his wife are accused of berating a Calgary doctor at his house in front of his wife and children for reposting a derogatory meme on Facebook.

The Facebook image referenced an alleged conflict of interest involving the Calgary MLA, his wife Andrea Shandro and a supplementary health benefits company of which they are part-owners.

Shandro, through a spokesperson, confirmed that he and his wife went to the doctor's house on Saturday evening to talk to the doctor about the meme.

The Shandros were subjected to a flurry of sometimes vicious personal attacks on social media after it was revealed last week that Andrea Shandro operates a Calgary company called Vital Partners Inc.

Among other services, Vital Partners brokers supplementary health insurance, including for some coverage delisted through recent legislative changes advanced by Shandro.

Incorporation documents show Shandro and his wife are part-owners of Vital Partners through their holding company, Shandro Holdings. Andrea Shandro's sister is the other owner. 

Late last week, the United Conservative Party government released a letter from Alberta's ethics commissioner, Marguerite Trussler, which said Shandro is not a director of the company, had transferred his shares to a blind trust, and is in compliance with the Conflicts of Interest Act.

Email exchanges

CBC News has also obtained email exchanges between Shandro and private citizens. The emails include a threat to send the legislature's security services after one person and calling another "crazy" for raising concerns about his alleged conflict.

Shandro's behaviour raises questions about his suitability as health minister during the COVID-19 pandemic, said political scientist Lori Turnbull, director of Dalhousie University's School of Public Administration in Halifax.

"He went to a private citizen's home to intimidate him in front of his family?" she said. "To say that is poor judgment is a huge understatement. What was going through his head?"

Turnbull said health professionals across the country are staying calm and providing assurances to the public during an extremely dire time.

"It seems like this health minister is not focused on the pandemic at all, which puts him obviously in a category of his own among health ministers and health practitioners in the country," Turnbull said. 

"At a time like this when we are looking to them for leadership, he is out intimidating people."

'Delete your post'

Calgary physician Dr. Mukarram Zaidi said Shandro and his wife Andrea Shandro, who live in the same neighbourhood, came to his home at about 7 p.m. on Saturday. Zaidi's two teenage sons were playing basketball on the driveway.

"[Shandro] tells my children that he wants to speak to me and they should stay inside," because "they don't want to listen to what is going to happen," Zaidi said.

Dr. Mukarram Zaidi said the driveway confrontation was upsetting. (James Young/CBC)

Zaidi said he put on a parka and slippers and went out to the driveway to face the Shandros, who were on the sidewalk about three metres away.

The boys went inside. But with their mother and another sibling, they saw and heard the confrontation through a window, Zaidi said.

"He is yelling at me and his wife is yelling at me," Zaidi said. "[They said] that they're getting death threats and what I did was wrong, and [I] should not post things. 

"And it is a whole scene — everybody is home, everybody is listening. I'm like, 'OK, you know what? Tell me what to do. Let's resolve it in a civil manner.'"

"He said, 'Delete your post.' I'm like, 'OK, I will just go delete my post. But let's go home.' Because he was not in a shape or form to have a discussion because he was yelling, crying and his wife was yelling."

'The minister will always stand up for his wife'

Shandro declined an interview request.

In an emailed statement, his press secretary Steve Buick said, "on [last] Friday alone, Andrea Shandro received a number of threatening emails and phone calls at her place of work. Defamatory social media posts like that posted by Dr. Zaidi were contributing to these attacks.

"Of course, the minister tried to speak to his long-time acquaintance and neighbour about this," the statement said. Shandro asked Zaidi to remove the post and he did, the statement said.

"The minister will always stand up for his wife — especially in the face of harassment and threats," the statement said, adding later that, "elected officials' spouses do not sign up to be subject to politically motivated, baseless attacks like this. It is deeply unfortunate that some willingly tried to make a small businesswoman collateral damage in their fight with the government."

Zaidi stressed CBC News contacted him; he did not contact the media about his confrontation with Shandro. He said he understands this is a difficult time for Shandro and his wife and he has forgiven them.

But he said, "I would like to have my privacy at home respected because now my wife is fearful for the safety and security of myself and for the family." 

Shandro did not address a query from CBC News about whether he would apologize to Zaidi.

Zaidi has known Shandro for years

Shandro and Zaidi have known each other for years. Both served on the constituency association of Calgary UCP MLA Mike Ellis.

Zaidi said he reposted a broadly distributed meme showing a photo of Shandro with the bubble caption: "So every Albertan I can kick off health care is another client we can sign up for Vital Partners. We will be rich!"

Shandro has proposed changes to billing that will reduce the amount paid to physicians for various kinds of patient visits, angering many doctors and causing some to reduce staff and to even close their practices.

During the confrontation, Zaidi said Andrea Shandro yelled at him that he only cares about money.

"I felt belittled at that moment," Zaidi said. Doctors are especially angry because of accusations from Shandro and members of the public that doctors are overpaid, even as they risk their lives to provide health care during the pandemic.

Minister's emails 'inappropriate'

In the email exchanges with private citizens obtained by CBC News, Shandro threatened to send the province's protective services after one woman and accused another person of being "crazy" and a partisan "bully" who joined the NDP in "harassing" his wife.

"It is completely inappropriate and it is almost unimaginable that a minister would speak to a constituent or to a citizen or to anyone that way," Turnbull said after reviewing the emails, which contained no threats against Shandro or his wife.

"I just think he is trying to intimidate anyone who asks questions about [the alleged conflict]." 

A ministerial assistant to Shandro mistakenly sent an internal email thread to one of the citizens. The thread shows that Andrea Shandro forwarded emails sent to Vital Partners to the minister's office and the minister responded to them.

"Who is this? [Is this] one of the emails Andrea sent this morning?" wrote ministerial assistant Chad Hallman.

"Minister, please don't respond to these or send these emails personally," Hallman said in the March 20 email. "I will send these out on your behalf. It is a lot easier for me to fall on a sword than you.

"Be careful. They want to rile you up and entrap you into saying something impulsive."

Calgarian Janice Fraser sent a single email to Vital Partners through the company's website. Within an hour of sending it, she received an email from Tyler Shandro.

"Sending threatening emails to my wife is completely inappropriate and must stop," he wrote. "If you want to believe lies about her on social media, that is up to you. But you can send your threatening emails to this office and this office only.

"Email her again and it will be referred to protective services."

'I was terrified,' woman says

In an interview, Fraser said when she read Shandro's threat to send protective services after her,  she "physically began to shake. I was terrified."

Fraser had worked as a constituency assistant for two MLAs, one Liberal and one NDP. In a return email to Shandro, she told him she knew what constituted a threat and that she had not made one to either Shandro or his wife.

She also told him she knew he had no authority to order protective services to investigate anyone.

"He was attempting to silence me and scare me," Fraser told CBC News.

Another recipient of an email from Shandro requested anonymity because they fear losing their job.

In an exchange of emails, Shandro eventually told the person, "If you don't want to be called crazy then don't lie about [my wife] and join the NDP in harassing and bullying a family member."

The citizen told Shandro they had not bullied his wife and were not a member of the NDP. The person reminded Shandro he is an elected official.

"When you are in that role, you are under scrutiny," the citizen wrote. "This is not bullying — this is holding you to account."

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