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Dr. David Swann's case is a singular example of publicity as the best defence. We commend Dr. Swann for his conduct in this case and hope that less prominent people who are unjustly treated will gain strength from his example.

Dr. David Swann

Fired medical officer expects to be reinstated

Dr. David Swann

CALGARY - Dr. David Swann says he expects to be offered his old job back as chief medical officer with the Palliser Health Authority in southeastern Alberta.

Swann says he was fired last week because he spoke out in public in support of the Kyoto accord.

On Tuesday, the Health Authority's board of directors met in Medicine Hat to discuss the situation. Swann says he's been asked to a meeting on Wednesday night where he expects to get his job back.

But he has several conditions before he accepts reinstatement. He says he wants the freedom to speak out on public health issues.

"Medical officers are completely independent. They're officers appointed through the ministers of health and are required to speak independently on public health issues," said Swann.

Alberta doctor fired for supporting Kyoto

EDMONTON - An Alberta medical officer of health says he has been fired because of his public support of the Kyoto Protocol, a dismissal he and the province's Liberals condemn as political meddling.

David Swann, a public-health officer in southeastern Alberta, was fired on Wednesday by the board of directors of the Palliser Health Region.

"I'm concerned that political influence can interfere with the best public-health system in Alberta," Dr. Swann said in an interview yesterday.

"This is a real threat to the independence of the medical officer to speak on issues of public-health importance. I think everybody should be concerned . . . if we allow non-health professionals to be influencing the decisions that we make."

Dr. Swann, who is president of the Society of Alberta Medical Officers of Health, said the board was upset that he was identified as the public-health officer for Palliser in a local newspaper story in which he voiced support for the health benefits associated with ratifying the accord. The regional health authority, which manages health services in the area, is based in the southeastern Alberta city of Medicine Hat.

In addition, he said that Len Mitzel, the chairman of the board of the health authority, told him he had received a telephone call from Alberta Environment Minister Lorne Taylor. Mr. Mitzel is also the president of Mr. Taylor's constituency association.

"The board chairman, as he was firing me, said that he had had a call from the minister," Dr. Swann said.

Val Mellesmoen, Mr. Taylor's spokeswoman, confirmed that the minister, who is MLA for Cypress-Medicine Hat, telephoned Mr. Mitzel for "clarification" on whether the remarks represented the views of the health region. Mr. Taylor was told they did not. A few days later, Mr. Mitzel phoned Mr. Taylor to inform him that Dr. Swann no longer worked for the authority, Ms. Mellesmoen said.

"MLAs talk to the [regional health authorities] all the time, right? But in that particular case because he knows Len, he picked up the phone and said, 'Is this really your position? ' " she said. "And I can't stress enough - there was absolutely no conversation about letting him go."

Kevin Taft, the Liberals' health critic, said the board, some of whose members, including Mr. Mitzel, are political appointees, should not have interfered in the work of Dr. Swann because medical officers of health require independence to speak out on matters of public health. He called their actions political meddling.

"I think there need to be serious questions raised [about] the relationship between Lorne Taylor and the regional health authority board, especially the chairman, and we have to question whether possibly Lorne Taylor did have some influence on this decision," he said.

Mr. Mitzel did not return phone messages yesterday. However, he told CBC Radio the board was upset that Dr. Swann was identified in the newspaper as a representative of the regional health authority and that he should have given the board a "heads up" before making public comments.

Last week, after Dr. Swann's remarks were published in the Medicine Hat News, the board of the Palliser Health Region voted unanimously to oppose the Kyoto Protocol. Mr. Mitzel said the health of the region would be affected by a loss of jobs.

"Whether it's mental health and stress, how is someone going to feed their own kids? Where are they going to find a job if oil and gas have to pull out? " Mr. Mitzel told the paper.

Meanwhile, Premier Ralph Klein's government released a poll yesterday suggesting 72 per cent of Albertans oppose ratification of the Kyoto Protocol and want a "made-in-Canada" solution to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, a result the province heralded as support for its belief that the more people know about the accord, the less they like it.

The poll, which was conducted by Environics West and commissioned by the government, comes four months after an Ipsos-Reid opinion survey concluded the opposite: that 72 per cent of provincial residents wanted Ottawa to sign the deal.

"For a long time, Kyoto was presented as the only alternative, the only option. Now . . . as Albertans learn that there are other options, they're less supportive of Kyoto," said Gordon Turtle, a spokesman for Mr. Klein.

Environics West surveyed 1,200 Albertans between Sept. 17 and Oct. 2. The results have a 95-per-cent statistical likelihood of accuracy within 2.8 percentage points upward or downward.

Medical official fired for stand on Kyoto: Fired expert warns of erosion of public confidence

David Swann, one of the most respected public-health experts in Alberta, has been fired from his job as the medical officer of health for the Palliser Health Authority for speaking out in favour of the Kyoto Protocol.

The decision to terminate Dr. Swann was made behind closed doors last Friday, one day after he was quoted in a Medicine Hat newspaper encouraging Alberta to work with other provinces and the federal government to meet or exceed targets established in the international accord.

On Wednesday, he was called to a brief meeting and told he had been fired. The man who delivered the news was Len Mitzel, a local farmer who was appointed chairman of the southeastern Alberta region by the provincial government. Mr. Mitzel is also president of the Progressive Conservative riding association in the area, Cypress-Medicine Hat.

The riding is represented provincially by Lorne Taylor, the Environment Minister, who is leading the government's anti-Kyoto stance. After reading the newspaper story, Mr. Taylor contacted Mr. Mitzel to discuss Dr. Swann's comments, and less than 24 hours later, the board voted unanimously to terminate their top doctor.

"I was shocked and still am," said Dr. Swann, who also serves as president of the Society of Alberta Medical Officers of Health. "The main impact of this unfortunate decision is a real erosion of a sense of confidence in our position as medical officers of health in this province to speak out on issues that affect the public and the environment. That is our job."

Provincial legislation empowers medical officers of health to speak in an independent and unfettered manner about risks or potential risks to human health, he said.

Dr. Swann had performed the job for the past 10 years. He is also the medical officer of health for the Headwaters Health Authority. He will remain in that post.

At a meeting in May, Alberta's medical officers of health passed a unanimous resolution encouraging governments to work to meet or exceed Kyoto targets. It was this resolution Dr. Swann was discussing in the media, arguing it will bring cleaner air, cut hospital costs and save lives.

But Mr. Mitzel said "there is more to the whole issue of Kyoto ... than strictly the reduction in greenhouse gases."

"The economy is involved, and with the economy is also money and unfortunately money also runs the health system. Our inability to have assurity that we would be able to deliver health services if the economy took a major downturn is a great concern to us."

Kevin Taft, health critic for the Alberta Liberals, called Dr. Swann's firing a huge mistake. "He is very highly respected and admired. How outrageous would it be if they got in there and started telling surgeons how to do surgery. This is exactly the same kind of thing."

Mr. Taft said the decision was made following "political interference" from the province.

"We learned this in Walkerton. The person who blew the whistle [on the tainted-water scandal in Ontario] was the medical officer of health. And he did it over the heads of local managers who were interfering in the process.

"If we don't have medical officers of health who, without intimidation, speak out on public-health issues, then one of the fundamental pillars of health in our society is undermined."

He said the board members should resign. "They are there to look after the health of all the people in that region, not to look after the political health of Lorne Taylor or Ralph Klein."

However, Mr. Mitzel insisted Dr. Swann was fired for a number of reasons. He said the issue was a "regional" one and added he "did not" speak with Mr. Taylor about it.

But in a telephone interview yesterday, Mr. Taylor stated: "I do talk to Leonard and I did have a conversation [about Dr. Swann] with the chairman of the board."

He said he called Mr. Mitzel after reading a story in the Medicine Hat News on Sept. 26 about the health officer's support for the Kyoto accord.