Manitoba health minister accuses doctors of 'causing chaos' for criticizing pandemic response

Cameron Friesen says he "questions the motivations" of Manitoba doctors who are speaking out, after hundreds of them signed a letter saying the province is in "grave danger."

'I wonder at the motivation,' Cameron Friesen says after letter signed by hundreds of doctors

Friesen questions doctors' motivation

3 years ago
Duration 0:45
Featured VideoIn a committee meeting Tuesday, Manitoba Health Minister Cameron Friesen responds to a group of doctors who publicly raised red flags about the province's pandemic response.

Manitoba's health minister is accusing doctors of "causing chaos" for raising concerns with the province's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A group of 200 Manitoba doctors and scientists wrote a letter to Premier Brian Pallister on Monday, saying the health system is overwhelmed and calling on the province to provide emergency funding to deal with the spike in cases.

"I wonder at the motivation to produce that letter, to generate it at a time when they knew it would have maximum effect in causing chaos in the system," Health Minister Cameron Friesen said Tuesday afternoon.

"I know many of them. I will talk to many of them. And I get it, they're scared. They want the best for their patients, and I absolutely agree," he said.

"Manitobans need most to understand that the people in charge have got this."

Friesen made the comments during a health estimates committee hearing.

Monday's letter was prompted by an alarming sense the province's response has not been quick enough, the doctors told CBC News.

"We have watched our COVID pandemic spiral out of control," the doctors wrote, pointing to Manitoba's staggeringly high test positivity rate. "Mathematical modelling from jurisdictions around the world showing we are in grave peril."

As of Tuesday evening, the letter had drawn 350 signatures from doctors and researchers.

The plea came three days after another group of more than a dozen doctors wrote an open letter to Pallister and Friesen, asking for a provincewide lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19.

'Profoundly insulting' to health-care workers: ICU doctor

A Winnipeg ICU doctor treating patients with COVID-19 called the health minister's comments "ill-informed, off-base, and profoundly insulting to the health-care teams."

"Many of us are appalled," said Eric Jacobsohn, an intensive care physician at Winnipeg's Health Sciences Centre and St. Boniface Hospital, who also signed the letter.

"The group of people who signed this letter had no malice or political agendas. These are people on the front line caring for patients. Some of these doctors have become critically ill with COVID," he said.

Hundreds of physicians and researchers were prompted by the "chaotic" number of patients they were seeing, and drafted the letter in one day before sending it, he said.

"To suggest this letter was somehow ... carefully timed at the peak of the outbreak is outrageous," he said.

"It was our responsibility to speak up and say we have an issue in the province."

It was our responsibility to speak up and say we have an issue in the province.- Eric Jacobsohn, Winnipeg ICU physician

Jacobsohn said exhausted doctors took a big leap in going public with their concerns in the interest of public health.

"Frankly, the easiest thing to do is to just go to work, get through the day, try and stay safe and just hope that things will work out. Even though a tsunami seems to be coming, your colleagues are getting ill, your nursing colleagues are getting ill. Staffing problems appear to be looming," he said.

"People actually took the time to become involved, to advocate, to make suggestions, and for that, they've told that they are creating fear and chaos?"

The province's health leaders should be taking the input from doctors, instead of questioning their motives, Jacobsohn said.

"On a personal level, I think the minister owes an apology."

Winnipeg ICU doctor Eric Jacobsohn says exhausted physicians and researchers penned their letter to the premier out of genuine concern for public health. He says Manitoba's health minister's suggestion that it was timed to cause chaos is insulting to those on the frontlines fighting COVID-19. (Submitted by Eric Jacobsohn)

Doctors 'motivated by saving lives': Kinew

NDP Leader Wab Kinew slammed Friesen for his comments, posting a link to the video on Twitter Tuesday evening.

"That the minister of health would question the motivations of Manitoba doctors, who put their lives on the line every day, is more than disrespectful. It's an attempt to undermine confidence in our front-line health workers," Kinew wrote in a statement to CBC News.

"Manitoba doctors and nurses are motivated by saving lives. The doctors who signed this letter took a serious professional risk to speak out against government inaction because of their commitment to protecting Manitobans."

CBC News has reached out to the health minister for reaction to the criticism.

When asked about the letter on Monday, Manitoba Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said he appreciated the doctors' comments.

Lanette Siragusa, the chief nursing officer for Shared Health, said she didn't see the letter, and said the doctors didn't talk to her about it.

Meanwhile, some other medical professionals took to social media Tuesday to explain their motivation for signing the letter:


Marina von Stackelberg is a senior reporter at CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. She previously worked as a reporter and host in Winnipeg, with earlier stints in Halifax and Sudbury. Her stories regularly appear across the country on CBC Radio and CBC News Network. Connect with her by email at or on social media @CBCMarina.