“We know how things were done when they were in office, Mr. Chair. They ignored problems. They swept them under the rug. And it is hard for me to imagine, but they allowed 12 babies to die and still didn’t take into consideration what happened to learn from such devastation that those families went through. It was actually left to us to apologize to those families and to bring in legislation to make sure that that didn’t happen again.”
— Health Minister Erin Selby, March 26, during a legislative committee meeting on her department’s budget
“You killed 12 babies.”
— Energy Minister and former Manitoba health minister Dave Chomiak, May 2011
This week, Health Minister Erin Selby rose in the Manitoba legislature to say she was sorry for comments she made two weeks ago regarding the deaths of 12 infants that occurred two decades ago at Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg.
Her apology came two weeks after bringing up the sensitive issue in a partisan exchange during a legislative committee meeting. And although Selby apologized to the infants’ families, she did not offer an apology to the politicians she directed the comments to in the first place.
“It was never my intention for these families to relive this tragedy and I am sorry,” Selby told the legislature on Tuesday.
In fairness, the apology came in answer to a question from Charleswood Progressive Conservative MLA Myrna Driedger, who asked Selby whether she would “apologize to those families for doing what she did.” This allowed Selby to do exactly that — without apologizing for smearing the Tories.
Nevertheless, it was a tepid apology from our provincial health minister, and a poor display from our NDP government, members of which essentially sanctioned Selby’s unfair comments.
And they are unfair, to say the least.
In the wake of the deaths of 12 infants at the HSC in 1994, and at the urging of the families of the dead infants, the Filmon government called an inquest into the situation and placed at its head then associate chief judge Murray Sinclair.
As the Winnipeg Sun reported last weekend, the three-year inquest found that the infant deaths came at the hands of an ill-equipped, inexperienced U.S. surgeon. The surgeries were performed over a 10-month period “under the cover of a dysfunctional work environment plagued by shockingly poor medical oversight, recruitment deficiencies and hospital infighting.”
At least five of the deaths were preventable, Sinclair ruled, and another four might have been prevented.
Sinclair also found that nursing staff involved in the program were “never treated as full and equal members of the surgical team,” as per the wording of his report, and any concerns that they had brought forward had been dismissed.
However, the report did not fault elected officials for administrative changes that led to the infant deaths.
Ironically, it was the recently formed NDP government — and in particular, then-health minister Chomiak — that received the report in November 2000, and was then tasked with implementing the required changes.
In this, the NDP can rightly claim to have made improvements to the administrative structure at Health Sciences Centre through its legislation, in order to prevent a repeat of the tragedy. But it couldn’t have done so without the previous government’s commitment to get to the truth of the matter.
Regardless of the party in power, Manitobans must be able to count on its political leaders to act in a responsible manner when it comes to sensitive issues of a public nature.
But Selby was not the first minister with experience in the health portfolio to accuse the Progressive Conservatives of ignoring the deaths of these infants, as we see in the quote by Chomiak above.
In our view, the ongoing rhetoric coming out of the mouths of NDP ministers in referring to the deaths of these infants must end, and Selby must further apologize to the Tories for insinuating that any government, sitting or prior, would simply stand by if it had knowledge of such wrongdoing.
Unfortunately we don’t think Selby will prove her worth, and we doubt this will be the last time that the NDP take such liberties with the truth.