Manitoba's health minister has refused to apologize for criticizing hundreds of doctors who demanded a provincewide lockdown to get spiralling COVID-19 cases under control.
As the LIberals called on Cameron Friesen to resign from cabinet, a physician who spoke out against the Tory government's response to the pandemic said an additional 150 doctors and academics had joined the cause.
During question period Wednesday, NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara asked Friesen to apologize for "questioning their motivation" at a committee meeting Tuesday. At that meeting, Friesen said he wondered what compelled the doctors to speak up "at a time when they knew it would have maximum effect in causing chaos in the system when Manitobans need most to understand that the people in charge have got this."
Friesen didn't say he was sorry on Wednesday, but sent a message to the doctors to express his gratitude and acknowledge why they might feel Manitobans are "in grave peril" as their letter stated.
"The message of this minister is: "I thank you every day for continuing to show up and to serve your patients with care,'" Friesen told the house. "Our gratitude for our frontline doctors is unchanged. We've expressed it every day.
"In this letter, they express concern about system capacity... some are really acknowledging they are scared," the health minister said, adding they needn't be afraid because senior health care officials have a plan.
"We have committed to provide a technical briefing and will give it to doctors to let them see it," said Friesen.
"I assure those doctors, work is going on on their behalf."
NDP Leader Wab Kinew called on Premier Brian Pallister to apologize to doctors on behalf of Friesen, whom he accused of casting aspersions on physicians.
Pallister accused Kinew of being divisive and not being able to understand "we're in a battle together and Team Manitoba needs everyone on it."
The Manitoba Liberals called for Friesen to resign from his cabinet post. Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont asked Pallister if he will remove the health minister "or will he continue rewarding incompetence?"
Pallister dismissed the question and praised Friesen for the work he has done in responding to the pandemic, including quadrupling the province's testing capacity.
After question period, the NDP said Friesen should resign if he won't apologize to the doctors.
Dr. Dan Roberts, who was one of 11 doctors who signed two recent open letters to the provincial government urging it to lock down the province, said "the minister's comments are inappropriate.
"I don't think anyone should question the motivation of physicians," said Roberts, a longtime critical care physician at the Health Sciences Centre. "I think Manitobans are grown up enough to handle the truth.
"I think we've been very responsible and our intention all along was to try to provide advice from a group of physicians who have a lot of experience and expertise in this area," Roberts said.
Dr. Kendiss Olafson, a critical care doctor who signed the letter supported by hundreds of doctors earlier this week, said "the comments by the health minister were extremely disappointing.
"An additional 150 MD and PhD have requested to sign the original letter. Minister Friesen's assertion that 350 physicians and PhD are conspiring to sow chaos during a public health crisis tells us that the minister has totally missed the bigger picture. Our motivation is the safety and well-being of our patients and all Manitobans."
Dr. Terry Wuerz, an infectious disease physician at St. Boniface Hospital who also signed the letter, said "speaking out publicly about how the pandemic is affecting our ability to care for our patients is not an act of sedition, but is borne out of a deep sense of concern for our patients and colleagues who have been affected.
"We want to spark a conversation about the hard steps that are still required to get us through the next few months and beyond.
"We will only get through these next months by working together and we will continue to work every day to stay ahead of this pandemic."
Meanwhile, when asked to comment on Friesen's comments, Mayor Brian Bowman said it is a stressful time for everybody, including public officials.
"I'd like to chalk up the minister's comments (Tuesday) to just misspeaking," Bowman said.
"If I were in his shoes… I would be reaching out to doctors and nurses to find a path forward so that we can better focus on combating COVID-19 and not each other. Right now we all need to be working together... in the meantime, I think it is really important for doctors and nurses and our health care heroes that are Winnipeggers to know that we value and support their efforts."
— with files from Joyanne Pursaga
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.