The health-care overhaul has been well documented in the media, and routinely questioned in the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, yet transparency and accountability are lacking. In fact, our government has embarked on a communication strategy that can only be explained as gaslighting Manitobans.
"Gaslighting" is a term that has become common in the public discourse, especially in relation to our neighbours to the south. The term originated from the 1944 movie Gaslight, about a woman whose husband slowly manipulates her into believing she is going insane in order to steal her inheritance.
The term has since been used to explain the proliferation of "alternative facts" and a distorted reality presented by certain politicians and political actors. Gaslighting, by definition, is "a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain and maintain power, makes a victim question their reality." It is a slow burn of consistent messaging that leaves the audience questioning their own reality to the point that they are led to believe the "alternative facts."
An example of this tactic is the provincial government’s treatment of the health-care reforms and its disregard of the facts. The average Manitoban does not have the time to embark on a critical discourse analysis of the information from their government officials. However, for me, someone whose working life centres on reading, discerning and analyzing health-care information, the gaslighting of Manitobans is in full effect.
The most recent example of this tactic is the release, earlier this month, by Dr. David Peachey of the assessment of the Phase 2 health reforms. On May 2, the government announced that Peachey had been contracted to conduct this assessment; this announcement followed weeks of questioning from both opposition parties regarding problems such as the closure of emergency rooms with no plan for the overflow of patients, understaffing at Concordia Hospital which led to the sudden closure of the ER and its subsequent conversion into an urgent-care centre, and the unsafe levels of overtime being worked by nurses, just to name a few.
The government responded by saying it is fixing a broken system.
The announcement of the assessment was puzzling, given the Pallister government’s staunch defence and support of the Health System Transformation: Blueprint for Change plan. In the process of the assessment, Peachey himself mischaracterized interviews with nurses (the only front-line workers consulted).
In an open letter to Peachey, the nurses said they in fact gave him a clear message that job cuts and ER closures were not helping the health-care system. But the results of Peachey’s assessment, as presented by the government in the legislative assembly, were nothing short of glowing — some minor tweaks needed, but overall the plan is going well.
And then on June 10, a week after the conclusion to the legislative session, the full assessment by Peachey was released. It details inadequate staffing, highly stressed staff, lack of planning and risk assessment, care for acute care patients at risk, quality of care at risk, inconsistent inter-facility communication, inadequate funding to St. Boniface Hospital and no patient-flow strategy, among others.
The assessment concluded that "confidence has been lost" in the Phase 2, yet Peachey maintained that the plan is right, but the timelines are off.
Health Minister Cameron Friesen said, "We published the report because we don’t have anything to hide. It is clear from this report that not everything went according to plan. I can tell you today it’s not the same system as the one that David Peachey first scrutinized again five weeks ago."
Let’s be honest: five weeks does not resolve the critical issues flagged by Peachey and front-line workers. The health minister’s quote is a further example of the gaslighting that is taking place. If, in fact, they had nothing to hide, why did they not release the full report all at once?
To further inflame the confusion, just two days later, reports emerged of staffing cuts and shift changes reflecting the reality on the front line and the sudden departure of the chief medical officer of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. On June 12, an internal memo was sent to St. Boniface staff advising that patients would be temporarily redirected from the ER.
The need to redirect patients comes just one week after the closure of the Concordia ER. When the memo was leaked, WRHA CEO Real Cloutier and St. Boniface CEO Martine Bouchard downplayed the severity of the situation so much that it led emergency room physician Paul Doucet to speak out.
In his interview with the Winnipeg Free Press, he said, "We were at a critical state in the emergency department… (Bouchard) characterized the memo as alarmist… but I’ve worked 32 years in emergency departments in Winnipeg, and I was alarmed." The fact is that capacity is being taken out of the system with the closure of Concordia ER and the impending closure of Seven Oaks ER. We should all be alarmed. Our health-care system is hemorrhaging and our government is hiding behind a self-imposed communications blackout.
A government concerned with transparency would not withhold information to be released later, nor would it mischaracterize what is happening in our health-care system. It is the duty of our elected officials to ensure information is accurate, and not treat what is happening as "alternative facts." Manitobans have a right to accurate information from their elected officials.
My message to the government is this: you left the gaslight on.
Brianne Goertzen is the provincial director of the Manitoba Health Coalition and a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives — Manitoba steering committee member. She serves as a school trustee for Ward 3, River East Transcona School Division.