Alberta doctors convicted of sexual abuse will face lifetime ban

Physicians and other health professionals found guilty of sexual abuse will face a lifetime ban from their profession under an amended bill passed in the Alberta legislature Thursday.

Bill 21 also applies to medical professionals including dentists, nurses, physiotherapists

Dr. Ismail Taher had his practice licence reinstated even though he was found guilty of sexually assaulting a patient and a nurse. (Janice Johnston/CBC)

Physicians and other health professionals found guilty of sexual abuse will face a lifetime ban from their profession under an amended bill passed in the Alberta legislature Thursday.

Under the bill's first version, a health professional convicted of sexual abuse could apply to their regulatory college to get their license back after five years.

But the legislation was amended after opposition MLAs, particularly Alberta Party MLA Karen McPherson, said a five-year ban wasn't sufficient to address the concerns of survivors.

The government voted against McPherson's amendment for a lifetime ban at an earlier stage of debate. An amendment from the UCP asking for a 40-year ban met the same fate.

But the government had a change of heart on Thursday. Health Minister Sarah Hoffman brought forward an amendment for a lifetime ban and asked her NDP colleagues to vote in favour.

Hoffman said the original bill with a five-year ban was modelled after Ontario, the only other province to have such legislation.

Hoffman said the government had concerns about legal challenges, but after talking with survivors and legal counsel she decided to go further with the bill.

"Even if it means that we're forging new territory, cutting new turf, that we send a very clear message -- the days of impunity are over, that by far we're going to have the strictest laws in Canada," Hoffman said.

As for legal challenges, Hoffman said the government will have to wait and see as no other Canadian jurisdiction has taken this step.

McPherson said a five-year ban sends a weak message to survivors. She is glad the government finally came around on a lifetime ban but she is disappointed it took so much effort. 

"This is what's needed. It takes so much courage for a survivor to come forward whether it's to the police or a tribunal or even a therapist," she said. "So this encourages people who have been sexually assaulted to come forward."

Alberta Party MLA Karen McPherson was the first MLA to propose a lifetime ban on physicians who sexually abuse their patients. Her amendment was voted down early in the debate on Bill 21. The government had a change of heart on Thursday and added a lifetime ban to the bill. (CBC )

Health professionals found guilty of sexual misconduct will face a range of penalties. They include licence suspension, cancellation with a five-year wait to reapply or a lifetime ban.

The legislation comes after a high-profile case in Edmonton involving a physician who had his practice licence reinstated even though he was found guilty of sexually assaulting a patient and a nurse.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta said it was limited by law about what it could do. It placed conditions on Dr. Ismail Taher, including having a chaperone in the room when he is seeing a female patient.

An Act to Protect Patients gives the 29 colleges and associations that regulate health professions new power to keep members found guilty of sexual assault and sexual misconduct away from patients.

Some of the other professionals covered by the bill include dentists, nurses, physiotherapists, social workers, pharmacists and psychologists.