Raj Sherman

Accompanied by his lawyer and frequently looking quite troubled, former Conservative Parliamentary Assistant for health Dr. Raj Sherman spoke in defence of public health insurance yesterday on the bitterly cold and deeply shadowed north steps of the Alberta Legislature.

More than 500 people were on hand despite a damp and penetrating wind that belied the official temperature of only minus-6 Celsius to decry the health policies of the government of Premier Ed Stelmach and cheer Sherman — who was kicked out of the Conservative caucus for speaking his mind about health care on Nov. 22.

But beyond the remarks of Sherman’s prominent Edmonton lawyer, Brian Beresh, there was really not much new at the 1 p.m. rally. The event spoke mainly to the grit of Alberta’s hardy defenders of public health care, willing to gather in large numbers on short notice in cold weather to cheer speeches from opposition politicians, health care union leaders and health professionals.

Their willingness to suffer the deep chill, of course, is also a backhanded tribute to the persistent conniving of the Conservative government to implement health care privatization over the objections of an Alberta public that clearly doesn’t back them on that particular issue, but which also continues to support political parties determined to wreck public health care.

It says something also for the sturdiness of the speakers that they patiently waited their turns, toes frozen but enthusiasm apparently undimmed. They included Alberta NDP MP Linda Duncan, Liberal MLA Hugh MacDonald, Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason, Alberta Union of Provincial Employees President Guy Smith, United Nurses of Alberta President Heather Smith, Vancouver-South Liberal MP (and former NDP premier of B.C.) Ujjal Dosanjh; and Elaine Fleming of the Whitemud Citizens for Public Health — who with perfect political pitch portrayed the Wildrose Alliance as the Stelmach Conservatives’ “weird cousins.”

Beresh said Sherman had been the victim of defamatory statements, and argued the Edmonton-Meadowlark MLA has been the victim of a vicious public smear campaign — a view obviously shared by most of the chilly crowd. Beresh said an investigation into the smear campaign is under way, vowing, “if I find that my client’s privacy rights have been violated, I will take direct and immediate action.”

That said, it was unclear just what specific form of action they propose to take. There seemed to be no suggestion from Beresh that Sherman would sue for defamation, which to a layperson seems like an obvious course of action under the circumstances described. From his remarks, Sherman sounds as if he would settle for an apology.

But whether or not you share the prevailing sentiment at the rally, that Sherman had been treated appallingly, or if you were part of the minority that think he was naïve to expect anything different from his former caucus mates even as you support his views on health care, one thing is surely true: Things are going to get really ugly now.

This Conservative government under Premier Stelmach is cornered and desperate, its incompetence revealed by months of frightening health care stories, and its normally unquestioned political primacy challenged for only the second time in 40 years.

Whatever has been said about Sherman up to now, worse is certain to be whispered in the weeks ahead as the Conservatives — who never looked very kindly on open opposition — bare their teeth.

At the very least, Sherman ought not to bet on getting an apology out of the likes of Premier Stelmach and the former Conservative health minister, the notoriously abrasive Ron Liepert, who on Nov. 23 said he didn’t just want his own apology from Sherman, “I want him to withdraw, publicly retract the remarks he made about my character that he can’t substantiate.” According to news reports, Sherman had said Liepert was “rude and offensive” to front-line medical staff.

Sherman is already high on this beleaguered government’s Enemies List. If he continues to challenge them by speaking out in favour of public health care, their attitude is not likely to become more conciliatory.

And if the investigation promised by his lawyer is followed by action of some sort, their response could well make what has been said to date seem mild by comparison.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

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...