Cournoyer Shots
Cournoyer Shots Credit: Dave Cournoyer / Dave Cournoyer Credit: Dave Cournoyer / Dave Cournoyer

Verna Yiu led Alberta Health Services through the darkest hours of the pandemic with grace and a steady hand. 

The 20-year-plus veteran of public health care administration is the kind of leader whose name invariably appears in print in close proximity to the word “respected.” 

So why wouldn’t the Kenney Government fire her? 

After all, she gave citizens confidence in their public health care system, even in the worst of times. 

So fire her they did, yesterday morning. 

It was the government-appointed Alberta Health Services Board that did the deed, trowelling on honeyed words of praise about Yiu’s service as CEO and president to deceive the credulous. 

But everyone who pays attention to Alberta politics understands that the graduate of the University of Alberta and Harvard University was fired for two related reasons:

First, she had to go because she stood in the way of the United Conservative Party plan to “reform” health care—by which is meant privatizing it to a degree not seen in Canada since the beginning of Canadian public health care in the 1960s.

Second, she had to go now because by dealing effectively with the two-year COVID-19 crisis she had alienated the worst people in the UCP, the crazies still in Kenney’s caucus who have been demanding her head for months because she refused to mince words about the challenges facing the health care system during the pandemic, and because she insisted all health care workers must be vaccinated against COVID-19—a clinical decision overruled for political reasons by Health Minister Jason Copping last December

Just days ago, Kenney was suggesting some of these same characters were “lunatics,” but now a ritual sacking must be carried out to satisfy their bloodlust and save the leader’s hide. 

It is said in the halls of the Legislature that the word came down from on high that Yiu was to be gone before Kenney faced his leadership review by UCP members—originally scheduled to take place in a single day on April 9, now spun out to a month of mail-in voting ending May 11. 

Anyway, if you don’t trust my analysis, there was this: “CTV News has confirmed Yiu was fired.”

NDP health critic David Shepherd addressed Yiu directly yesterday in a news release: “You have served Albertans well through good times and bad. … You deserve far better than the ugly treatment you got from this failed government.”

Not quite a year ago, on May 4, 2021, the AHS Board extended Yiu’s contact for an additional two years, to June 2023. 

“I am very pleased that Dr. Yiu will continue to serve as the organization’s president and CEO for an additional two years,” the previous AHS board chair, David Weyant, said at the time

But as so often must be remembered in this province, that was then and this is now. 

Now that the government has declared the pandemic to be effectively over—notwithstanding considerable evidence to the contrary—that tune has changed. 

“We are very grateful for Dr. Yiu’s tireless leadership through the worst days of the pandemic, and we thank her for her years of dedicated service and commitment to AHS and to Albertans,” AHS Board Chair Gregory Turnbull said yesterday in a news release. “We have been planning for an orderly transition.”

Others in the Kenney government lined up to utter similar hollow praise.

“I want to thank Dr. Yiu for her leadership over the past six years,” said Copping in the government’s press release, before swiftly pivoting the UCP’s sinister new message. “It’s time to move forward with an ambitious agenda to improve and modernize the health system, and renewed leadership at Alberta Health Services will support delivering those changes.” 

Translation: We need someone more cooperative if we’re going to gut public health care.

“The AHS board has been planning for some time to start the recruitment process for a new CEO at the end of Dr. Yiu’s extended term,” Copping also said. “The agreement with Dr. Yiu that the board announced today will bump up the timeline for the transition and help the system move forward.”

Of course, the board would have had little choice but to agree to a generous deal with Yiu to get her to go—after all, her conduct in office has been exemplary, and her contract had a year to run. If nothing else, they’ll have to pay a year of her $568,321 annual salary. For nothing.

Well, it could be more expensive—and doubtless will be. Readers with long memories will remember that a previous Conservative government created Alberta Health Services in 2009 basically to break the power of Calgary Health Region CEO Jack Davis, who had apparently backed the wrong horse in the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party’s 2006 leadership race.

Kenney seems to have had nothing public to say about the matter of Yiu’s sudden departure, although we can count on it that the word is being circulated in the right circles that the premier was the man wielding the axe.

For her part, Yiu was graceful as always. “I have had the extraordinary privilege to lead Alberta Health Services for the past six plus years,” she said. “I would like to thank all staff, physicians and volunteers for their steadfast care of Albertans and their ability to put patients and families first, particularly as we have navigated through the past two pandemic years.”

So with a looming general election and the Kenney Government now trying to send all thoughts of the pandemic down the Memory Hole, one has to ask: Will Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw be next? 

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...