Alberta Premier Danielle Smith delivered on her long-promised shakeup of Alberta Health Services yesterday, firing the 11 members of the province-wide agency’s Conservative-appointed board and naming John Cowell as its sole administrator. 

Progressive Conservative premier Alison Redford (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Alert readers will recall that Dr. Cowell was appointed sole administrator of AHS in September 2013 by Conservative premier Alison Redford after her health minister, Fred Horne, lost confidence in the agency’s Conservative-appointed board. 

As far as anyone can tell, the medical doctor and former head of the Health Quality Council of Alberta fixed nothing during his yearlong first rodeo at AHS. 

It’s likely that when Dr. Cowell’s current indeterminate appointment as sole administrator comes to an end, he will have accomplished the same thing. 

Dr. Cowell’s appointment axiomatically illustrates the health-care strategy of Alberta’s Conservative governments at least since 1992, when Ralph Klein became premier: 

“Nothing we have done to fix the problems in health care has worked for years! Let’s do the same thing again this year!” 

Premier Redford’s health minister, Fred Horne, the last guy to fire the AHS board (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Well, to be fair, Dr. Cowell, Health Minister Jason Copping and Premier Smith haven’t proposed blowing up a major urban hospital as Mr. Klein did. Yet. 

Premier Smith boldly promised at her news conference yesterday that as a result of her shakeup at AHS Albertans will quickly see “faster EMS wait times, decreased Emergency Room wait times, and reduced surgical wait times.”

No such thing will happen before the next election, of course, although misleading claims may be made.

Why? Well here is a small example: What is the simplest thing the government could do to immediately reduce wait times in Emergency Rooms during the current triple wave of respiratory infections? Answer: Mandate the indoor use of face masks

Beyond the current premier’s ideological blinders, the problems facing the health care system are too big, too systemic, too international, and too steeped in the market fundamentalist philosophy that dominates Conservative political parties to be fixed in a few weeks, if they can be fixed at all. 

Respected former AHS CEO and president Verna Yiu (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

The uncertainty and chaos introduced by the United Conservative Party’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach to health care management are likely only to make things worse. 

Never mind that Dr. Cowell himself acknowledged back in 2013, soon after he was appointed the first time as sole administrator, what AHS really needed was stability. That hasn’t changed either. 

During Dr. Cowell’s tenure in his latest posting, though, expect Alberta’s health care system to remain in the perpetual state of crisis it has been in at least since Mr. Klein was premier – with the sole exception of the short period between 2015 and 2019 when Rachel Notley’s NDP was in power. 

This is not to say that all was well in health care during the NDP government. On the contrary, many of the systemic problems that bedevil health care throughout Canada today, exacerbated by the lingering effects of the pandemic and an international shortage of nurses, continued between 2015 to 2019.

University of Calgary political scientist Lisa Young (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

What was different was that the system was governed with stability, not “creative destruction,” in mind. The result was order, and incremental progress, not a rapid descent into chaos. 

Alberta was also fortunate after 2016 that AHS was under the steady hand of the capable, sensible, and respected Verna Yiu. 

Dr. Yiu was fired by Ms. Smith’s predecessor, Jason Kenney, and her health minister, Mr. Copping, who held the same portfolio in the Kenney Government.

Dr. Yiu had been targeted by the extremist anti-vaccine fringe of the UCP base for requiring front-line health care staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19 during the gravest health care crisis in a century. 

Premier Smith was among the many noisy voices on the far right calling for her head. 

Ironically, Mr. Kenney was soon pushed out himself by the same mob, which chose Ms. Smith as Alberta’s premier-without-a-mandate. 

Sarah Hoffman, minister of health during the NDP government (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

It is interesting to note, as University of Calgary political scientist Lisa Young reminded us yesterday afternoon in what she called the “obligatory political scientist ministerial responsibility tweet” that the Alberta Government has now fired the CEO of AHS, chief medical officer of health Deena Hinshaw, and the AHS board (which they appointed). And yet “the minister stays in place.”

In case you missed it, the principle of ministerial responsibility holds that ministers are accountable not only for their own actions as the heads of government departments, but also for the actions of their subordinates.

Well, not in Alberta, apparently. 

Here, that job will be left up to voters. 

A few months after Mr. Cowell left his post at AHS in 2014, Alberta’s first NDP government was elected in May 2015. Under health minister Sarah Hoffman, the NDP restored the AHS board in the fall of 2015. Dr. Yiu was appointed in June 2016. Things ran relatively smoothly until 2019. 

Those looking for more parallels in history will note that the next Alberta provincial election is scheduled to take place on May 29, 2023. 

Join the Conversation


  1. Well, I suppose its easy to fire the AHS board, particularly if you have been talking about it for a while. And, if you are Smith, you have to do somethings to placate your fringe supporters. So to some degree this and firing Hinshaw are symbolic. Of course, Kenney already took care of getting rid of the CEO of AHS.

    However, all this firing is not good for AHS. It might have been good to stop with one firing or not even that, but the UCP is like an addled monkey who can’t resist touching the third rail of health care. They might think they are going to get rewarded for this, but as the system falls into further chaos, they could instead get a rather nasty shock.

    It is probably not a good sign that Smith is recycling Redford’s idea and administrator. How did that work out the first time? With the short period of time to the next election, I suppose it is less likely Smith’s own party will boot her out, like they did to Redford, but hey stranger things have happened. For instance, anyone hear about the opposition leader that defected to the government, lost her own seat and then suddenly came back as Premier almost a decade later?

    Smith seems to often embrace and create chaos, but this might not be as great for everyone else. It also is not a good idea politically. Having a board in place at least gives the illusion of distance between the government and AHS. It is very clear now who is calling the shots. For better or worse, they will now own what happens. Having a board allowed a bit of diversity as well, so perhaps things could be discussed and thought through and rash unwise ideas or actions avoided. Now we are counting on the competence and wisdom of just three people who haven’t demonstrated a lot of it so far.

  2. Ms. Smith’s decision to fire Dr. Henshaw, not a good move. Perhaps Ms. thought firing a knowledgable doctor might appeal to her base.
    Firing the whole board, not a good move. Now she has one person doing the job of 10.
    One person doesn’t know everything. If the one person makes a mistake, well as they say there goes the neighbourhood or in this case, there goes Alberta’s medical services.

    Nothing is going to happen fast. Ms. Smith now most likely thinks she actually done something, but no one said she was the brightest Alberta had. I’m am sure that whom ever is going to take Dr. Henshaw’s job will be following Ms. Smith’s orders. The one person replacing the 10, ditto. They’ll also be swamped with work. Not going to end well.

    It may take some time to replace Dr. Henshaw and if there are major pandemics in Alberta, well voters might want to remember that come election time.

    Would not be surprised if Ms. Smith brought in a corporation to run health care in Alberta, manage it because there is no one who can do it effectively in Canada.

    Just looking at the three in the picture of the 3 does not cause me to develop any confidence in Alberta health care.

  3. You can bet that if Danielle Smith and the UCP are given the chance to, they will get private for profit healthcare in Alberta, and leave the public healthcare system in Alberta, in tatters. They do not care one bit who their bad policies will harm. Danielle Smith is a huge admirer of Ralph Klein. It was Ralph Klein who made such severe cuts to healthcare in Alberta, so he could try and get it privatized. He laid off a very large number of nurses in Alberta, making them have to relocate, or take early retirement. Doctors in Alberta weren’t treated very well either. Rural hospitals in Alberta were shut down, and other hospitals were demolished. Other hospitals were were left in a bad shape, from negligence. People lost their lives over this foolishness. The UCP had appointed Janice MacKinnon to their Blue Ribbon Panel, and their intentions were clear with that appointment. Janice MacKinnon was an NDP cabinet minister in Saskatchewan, under the Roy Romanow government, and she was emulating Ralph Klein’s cuts, by closing down rural hospitals in Saskatchewan, to try and fix a budget mess caused by Grant Devine’s PC government. The UCP, much like Ralph Klein, have to resort to stupid cutbacks, because they didn’t collect the proper oil royalties, or corporate taxes, like Peter Lougheed did, and they also have squandered away billions of dollars on very pricey shenanigans. How foolish can people be to support this? Had people in Brooks Medicine Hat even bothered to vote, they could have made a difference. But many didn’t care, and they just stayed home. Will they regret this?

  4. Healthcare is difficult to manage in any province at anytime. One thing that is clearly needed for any government to sincerely make positive changes is respect from healthcare providers. This simply cannot be achieved by a premier that continues to claim ER waits are because of health provider vaccine mandates and that ivermectin is a safe and effective covid treatment. These are dangerous and insulting lies; no one within healthcare is going to listen to this UCP and nor should they.

  5. Even though Lisa Young reminded us that the minister is still in place, remember Tyler Shandrow, former minister of health?
    It is very clear nobody has a clue what to do. More ambulances and paramedics is not going to make EMS response faster, it just means the parking lots at hospitals will get more and more clogged with ambulances waiting to get patients into the emergency department.
    There are a few things the UCP can do to alleviate all this, but they will not listen to anyone and refuse to do anything until they get their US style private healthcare.
    While the health ministers were meeting, Justin Trudeau had the best comment I’ve heard in years. He said something like: there is money and strings attached, but not for provinces that squander tax revenue by reducing income taxes to line the pockets of the wealthy. This is my view was a direct shot at the UCP. I’m sure Alberta is one of the provinces that will have difficulty with the accountability of extra health care dollars.

  6. Thank you for the reminder. This has to stop. Chaos and confusion may well be the tools of the narcissist, but this is no way to govern a province. May 29, 2023 is coming. Time to restore sanity by kicking the UCP out. We need adults who take responsibility for their actions at the helm of this Enterprise.

  7. re: Dr. Young’s “obligatory political scientist ministerial responsibility tweet”

    Although Dr. Young is no doubt correct, this is clearly a case of be careful for what you wish for. While it is probably appropriate for Mr. Copping to resign, the problem is that he would then have to be replaced, and the UCP seems to have a pretty shallow pool to draw talent from. Jason Copping seems to be one of the more competent cabinet ministers our current government has (not saying much). Not surprisingly I think I heard that he has decided not to run again in 2023, but I cannot find anything to confirm it.

    Meanwhile, yesterday Jason Copping announced that a 4 year old child died of the flu. I wonder if he is trying to subvert the premier’s ‘no mask mandate’ promise by generating public opinion toward masking.

  8. The conservative appointment thing reminds me of that, now famous, saying about the US: (to paraphrase) being an enemy of the Conservatives in AB is dangerous, being their friend is deadly. Except, as you point out, for the Minister involved.

  9. In the news the other day was an article of an Alberta Doctor sentenced to four years prison time for fraud.It occurred to me that I never get a ” Bill ” for medical visits. After I leave the appointment that’s the end of it. This is a recipe for disaster. All Alberta citizens with a health care card should get an itemized invoice at the end of the month. A copy of what Alberta Health gets.
    We the citizens of this province have a right to know what we are being charged and where the money is going, after all we are paying with our taxes. Name me one business that doesn’t tell the customer what they are being charged? Only one comes to mind…Alberta Health.
    Now take a minute to ponder the question: Why is that?

    1. ayeamaye, there are problems with your suggestion. Ralph Klein’s government tried it. Most folks ignored it (I certainly did) but a few, mostly elderly, got scared when they thought it was a bill for services. Some stopped going to the doctor. The inevitable result: people going to hospital, even ER, for treatable illnesses.

      The same kind of thing has been tried elsewhere; Singapore (or Hong Kong?) had a “health care account” in the early ’80s. $2000 of health care prepaid. Anyone worried about “running out of doctor money” put off visits to the family doctor. The inevitable result: lots more hospital visits that cost way more than a visit to the doctor for a prescription. (But they didn’t use up their $2000. Yay.)

      No, I don’t want to see what my doctor bills for, mostly because I trust him. In this one case, it was up to AHS to review her billing practices–which they did. Is she the only one? No. Was it deliberate fraud? I dunno, I’m neither an accountant nor a doctor. Leave it to the forensic accountants and the medical experts.

  10. When members of my family were involved in the health care system under Lougheed and Getty everything worked just fine. Yet under Klein when nurses were bawling their eyes out in my office because Klein was destroying their careers, Klein’s father Phil said to me “Al what in the hell is the matter with that son of mine? While he gives away billions in royalties he is forcing us to try to live without a proper health care system. This could cost some people their lives”. That’s exactly what it did and the lawsuits prove it, one was almost my father who had donated around $30,000. to the Alberta Conservative Party and our family had spent countless hours volunteering for them. Klein’s father Phil and daughter Angie tried to help us vote him out , yet ignorant Albertans, mostly seniors wouldn’t let us. The more he abused them the more they liked it. Of course these reformers would never consider collecting proper royalties and taxes and funding the system properly, like Lougheed did. Helping the rich steal our wealth, in an effort to buy votes is all they care about. Like all the rest Smith has no intention of changing anything and I bet doctors and nurses will leave by the bus loads.

  11. This pandemic has really opened my eyes. Month after month of people that know NOTHING about viruses and pandemic controls debating with others across the floor of some legislature who are equally lacking knowledge. Might just be time to let the medical community run the show and get the politicians away from healthcare altogether and focus on what they know best and spend most of their time doing anyway which is campaigning for the next election.

  12. I remember when Joe Clark won a minority in 1979, saying he intended to govern as if a majority. No, Joe!—don’t do it!!—it’s a trap!!! …But…1980…

    Contrast Joe with Stephen Harper—different party, different personalities, same situation. Harper, however bullish he acted with his immediate-knee-to-groin politics, was actually very cautious during his first of two minorities: his CPC government’s first mandate achieved the lowest legislative productivity in modern Canadian history, got a little more behind with a second minority, and got all in a rush during his first and only minority, cutting so many corners in his centrepiece Northern Gateway proposal that, whilst preceding corner-cropped legislation was struck down in the docket. Did anyone warn, “Prime Minister, look out! It’s a trap!!” Nope. It was just a prolonged springing.

    But, Joe, we hardly knew ye.

    Remember BC premier Christy Clark? —the one who parachuted into the fissure zone of fracturing BC Liberal factions after the party forced out its micromanaging leader, Gordon Campbell, for plumbing the depths of unpopularity. Like the illegitimate child of Mary Poppins and Reba McEntire, Christy dropped out of the radio waves and stunned everybody by beating more capable leadership candidates, and quickly sought a seat in Campbell’s vacated riding. Did nobody tell her, “Christy! No!! It’s a trap!!!” Nope. She got thrashed by rookie NDP candidate David Eby (who won the two incumbencies since and will be sworn in as BC’s next Premier today).

    Did nobody dissuade her from advertising her goofy “Om-on-the-Bridge” publicly stunt, the only project the dark cabal allowed the care-taker premier’s rumpus room? She and her bridesmaid appointees toiled and toiled on that dough-headed idea but an outcry from commuters who disapproved blocking Vancouver’s already snarled traffic by closing the Burrard Bridge, and by First Nations who complained the stunt would disrespect National Aboriginal Day, and by taxpayers who took exception to paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to watch Christy and friends do yoga while grid-locking the daily commute. But did anyone in the BC Liberal caucus warn her: “No, Christy! Don’t do it!! It’s a trap!!!” Nope. It was really the intense public outcry which backed her down.

    The dark cabal was constantly looking for things to do for Christy—like, stay out of the kitchen cabinet. But did nobody tell her that paying for her pink T-shirt anti-bullying stunt out of the BC Civil Forfeiture fund was a conflict of interest? It almost seemed like if she’d been walking blindfolded towards a cliff nobody in her caucus would say anything. When she went to a huge spill of mine tailings to do a photo-op in solidarity with her First Nation “sisters,” maximizing instead of minimizing publicity heat her government would take over the disaster, nobody in caucus or cabinet tried to wave her off of such an impolitic idea. When she decided to stump the 2017 election campaign entirely in remote northeastern BC, site of the highly controversial Site-C Dam, apparently nobody told her it might cost BC Liberal seats in southwestern BC where all the votes are, as it did (the NDP flipped several BC Liberal seats in the Lower Mainland).

    When her newly-elected minority lost a confidence vote against the Green-Dipper alliance, she’d had quite enough and immediately resigned both her leadership and her seat, thus leaving the NDP with just enough freeboard to form a government. There was apparently no love in the BC Liberals for their bubbly-headed leader.

    Now, is anybody going to tell Danielle Smith: “No, Danielle! Don’t mess with Alberta’s struggling healthcare system!! It’s a trap!!!” Anybody?

    Well, yes: the NDP and all manner of healthcare personnel, as well as all stripes of Alberta citizens needing timely medical care. They’ll be saying, “Stop, Danielle! You’re hurting Albertans…” But maybe they won’t say it as loud as you’d expect her own party to say it.

    Because Smith likes to hear what she likes to hear, and really isn’t interested in hearing what she doesn’t want to hear, there’s a palpable risk that she will stumble into trouble—and her goofy plans for Alberta healthcare looks very much like it’s going the wrong way, diametrically, and that spells big trouble because the system is already in big trouble and her agenda will certainly make it worse, and in case she doesn’t get it, healthcare is one a them non-partisan needs. Will nobody in the UCP caucus warn her off a self-destructive path, or will they let her walk off a cliff?

    After all, what future is there for the UCP if they can’t get rid of her somehow?

  13. The task of replacing the CEO of AHS just became an impossibility with the firing of the AHS Board. No one qualified will touch the job. Stability in the AHS is now a bad joke.

  14. I remember in about the middle 50’s, my father took me to the doctor. As we left, my father paid $5.00 for the doctor’s visit. This was in a very poor area and many others families couldn’t even pay the $5.00. This new scheme is 70 years old.
    We sure are not moving forward.

  15. The time frame for this current regime, alone makes the premier’s agenda impossible to implement. Over and above the fact that the agenda is produced by an incompetent and incapable ideologue. But she will take a wrecking bar to the existing system in this short window of playtime.
    Remember, Sara Hoffman brought relative peace and calm to the health care portfolio for 4 years. That person has significant talent and ability.

  16. AHS’ Board is an effort to project an image of arm’s-length management of the most important policy file in this or any other provincial government’s mandate. It also serves to shield the Minister of Health from accountability for the day-to-day running of the health care system. But given the significance of health care in a government’s political fate, and its share of the budget, this has always been a bit of a deceptive exercise. The buck will always stop with the Minister.

    Since as we have seen that governments can’t really avoid sticking their fingers into the health care system, perhaps it’s time to ditch the veil of accountability and make AHS directly part of the Ministry of Health. No Board, no “Official Administrator”, just a CEO who is also a Deputy Minister reporting directly to the Minister of Health.

  17. Dear David, I hope you’re not but you sure sound like an apologist for the official covid nonsense – face masks, really? – and fearporn over the ‘tripledemic’ hype.
    Check out the ’cause of death unknown’ rates in Alberta: 2019, 522; 2020, 1464; 2021, 3362!
    Suddenly the leading cause of death in Alberta post covid jabs? Perhaps the board’s lucky to avoid prosecution.
    Have a look at the data and let me know if I have misconstrued your view or if we could discuss. All the best, Charles.

    1. Charles: All comments are moderated. By me. When I have time. Not part of my day job. Sometimes commenters have to wait. I try to get to them in a timely fashion. Answers to questions directed to me are not guaranteed. DJC

  18. Dear David Climenhaga, Check out the ’cause of death unknown’ rates in Alberta: 2019, 522; 2020, 1464; 2021, 3362! Suddenly the leading cause of death in Alberta post covid jabs is unknown? Have a look at the data and let me know if I have misconstrued them or your view. All the best, Charles.

    1. Charles…”unknown cause of death,”…..1 , 2 , maybe even 4 or 5 cases of unknown, might take the Dr.’a some time to figure out ,
      3362 ? do you really believe that the medical profession would not be doing everything in their power to find the cause after the first half dozen? do you not know about autopsies? or are you again insinuating that these professionals don’t know what they are doing?

      However, if you take a covid denier, or someone who doesn’t want the number of covid deaths piling up in the media, because it’s going to look bad on them, it’s very easy to say unknown, just like the insurance companies saying no fault. Not accepting responsibility for something you’ve done or not done, depending on who you’re pandering to……and having the final say on what goes out to the media, it’s easy enough to give a false impression.

      covid-nonsense, fearporn, tripledemic-hype, post-covid jabs, your use of these terms shows that you must get your information from fox or jones or whatever right wing podcast you have whispering in your ears.
      The master manipulator of numbers and facts about covid started with not wanting the infected passengers let off the cruise ship , because he said the numbers ” on land ” would go up.
      So if the person in charge does not want high covid case numbers reflecting back on his questionable decisions about something as simple as wearing a mask, or getting a vaccine, just to keep the support of his base, of course he’s not going to keep the public informed about the truth about those deaths. For someone who has been following the numbers from day 1, all across Canada, all you have to do is look and see when the government of AB stopped doing the daily, then weekly announcements. There are people still dying every day from covid here in Canada, whether you know about it is up to you, the information is available.
      IMHO, the only thing that is misconstrued, is the blather from the anti everything crowd, who act worse than spoiled 5 yr olds who spout out nonsensical rhetoric, stamp their feet looking for attention…thinking that the whole world should revolve around them…and are too oblivious to see that if everyone was doing that, they would just be lost in the crowd, again, and then they would have to find something else to start whining about, because SOME PEOPLE HAVE NOTHING BETTER TO DO!!
      The rest of us are doing our best to support each other, get on with our lives as best as possible and try and avoid having to deal with egotistical, self centered, people that keep yapping about freedom as they are being led by the nose by their manipulators.
      Like I keep saying, you can’t tell a Heinz pickle nuffin—

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