Manitoba health minister regrets word choice but won’t apologize for saying doctors are ‘causing chaos’

Manitoba health minister Cameron Friesen stopped short of apologizing for questioning the motivation of doctors who warned of “grave peril” as COVID-19 case numbers surge, but says he regrets what he said.

He’s been under fire since Tuesday when he challenged more than 200 doctors and infectious disease experts for writing a letter that expressed grave concern with Manitoba’s worsening COVID-19 outlook.

“If I would go back, I’d choose a different noun,” Friesen said, without specifying the word. 

“But if I go forward, what is important right now and I feel the most important thing is to listen to those doctors,” he said. “We support you. We need you now more than ever.”

While he didn’t apologize, Friesen showed remorse for his comments at Tuesday’s committee hearing.

“I get it, they’re scared and they want the best for their patients and I absolutely agree,” Friesen said at the time.

WATCH | Health Minister Cameron Friesen’s comments on Tuesday about the letter:

In a committee meeting Tuesday, Manitoba Health Minister Cameron Friesen responds to a group of doctors who publicly raised red flags about the province’s pandemic response. 0:45

“I wonder at the motivation to produce that letter, to generate it 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.”

His comments were swiftly denounced by physicians. The NDP and Liberals demanded his resignation.

Friesen said he did not intend to hurt doctors’ feelings.

Let’s move past this: Friesen

“I live in a world of words and there’s thousands of them that I put on the record every single day,” he said.

“I could have chosen a better word. I think that doctors can move past this, I know I can.”

He said he’d leave it up to Manitobans to “draw their own conclusions about the timing of that letter exactly, this Monday, on the day of the highest cases coming out.”

Earlier in the day, Premier Brian Pallister said Friesen demonstrated his remorse by writing a letter to the physicians. The province will hold briefings to keep them abreast of plans to expand health-care capacity, Pallister said. 

“Whether you describe that as an apology or not, that’s an act of contrition that the health minister’s taken to demonstrate sincerely what was already obvious to everybody who knows him: he cares deeply about the advice he gets from medical professionals and he cares deeply about relationships with the people he works with.”

NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara said it is unforgivable that Friesen still won’t apologize. 

“To be quite frank, I think that’s pathetic,” they said.

“When you have people who are literally putting their health and safety … at risk going into our hospitals, fighting COVID-19, and you insult those very people for raising concerns and drawing attention to issues that need to be addressed immediately so that our health system doesn’t collapse, and you refuse to apologize? That’s 100 percent unacceptable.”

Inquest on PCH deaths recommended

Also in question period Thursday, NDP justice critic Nahanni Fontaine called for the chief medical examiner to call an inquest into the deaths of Manitobans who’ve died of COVID-19 at personal care homes.

The Fatality Inquiries Act says investigations may be conducted when deaths are brought about “in a prescribed type or class of facility and institution.”

Her letter to Dr. John Younes, chief medical examiner, noted there have been 23 deaths at Parkview Place personal care home and eight at the Maples Long Term Care Home.

The NDP is asking the chief medical examiner to call an inquest into the deaths of residents at some personal care homes, including Parkview Place. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

These outbreaks are avoidable, Fontaine said.

“What we’ve seen is a failure to protect residents and staff, and it’s incumbent on the premier to find out why.”

Friesen said the government’s resources are better spent dealing with the health-care system right now.

“Look, after this is all over, I’m sure there will be many questions asked,” Friesen said.

The responsibility to call an inquest is up to the chief medical examiner.