Premier Doug Ford's office initially penned a harsher statement on its most high-profile COVID critic, but toned it down after pushback behind the scenes.
Emails obtained by QP Briefing show the health minister's chief of staff and the co-chair of the science table urged the premier's office to soften its proposed media response about Dr. David Fisman after a Toronto Sun article raised concerns about the epidemiologist's impartiality.
Fisman said the emails display an inappropriate coziness between public health advisers and the government — which, he said, is why he resigned from the science table last year.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said the premier's office was "absolutely not" trying to sully Fisman's reputation. She said the government has always listened to the chief medical officer of health and has respected experts' differing opinions.
"Everyone on the Science Advisory Table has been free to state whatever it is that they want to say, and there's been no government involvement in that," she said.
How it started
In January 2021, the Sun reported that Fisman had done paid consulting work for the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO). The paper positioned the work as a potential conflict of interest, given Fisman's position on Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table — an independent group of experts who give the government pandemic advice. Fisman was by far the most outspoken expert critic of the Ford government's handling of the pandemic.
Hours after the article was published, Ford's spokesperson, Ivana Yelich, sent out a statement calling the news "deeply concerning."
"Our expectation is that anyone involved in providing advice to the government in this capacity would do so absent of agenda or bias, and therefore this paid relationship raises legitimate concerns," the statement read in part.
Through a freedom-of-information request, QP Briefing received emails that show how that statement was crafted.
Behind the scenes
A draft statement sent by Yelich to key government messengers called him "Mr. Fisman" instead of "Dr.," and stated, "Ontarians deserve better than this."
Heather Watt, Elliott's chief of staff, suggested Yelich remove that line, replace "Mr." with "Dr.," and make some other edits.
The draft also referred to Dr. Steini Brown, the co-chair of the science table, as an example of an expert who deemed the government's return-to-school plan as "safe."
His name was taken out in the final statement and replaced with "a wide range of public health experts."
After Watt sent her edits, Travis Kann, another premier's office spokesperson, asked her to "put this in front of Steini," which she did.
Brown told Watt he was concerned about the part of the statement that read, "...we have sought a resolution to ensure clear conflict of interest screens are in place," regarding the science table.
"I think all of the rest makes sense to me, but that phrase worries me a lot," he wrote.
Watt's response, and Brown's subsequent lengthy reply, are blocked out in the FOIA results, save for Watt saying she's "open to suggestions on language," and Brown saying, "I can live with the language if you need to put that out there."
Asked by QPB about it on Tuesday, Elliott didn't say what the "resolution" line referred to. Brown didn't respond to requests for comment.
The line was cut in the final statement.
You can see the changes made from the first draft (on the right) to the final statement (on the left) using this link.
A "hit job," and a soured relationship
Fisman said he "always assumed this was a hit job" given the Ford government's ties with the Toronto Sun. Former Sun executive James Wallace is now the premier's chief of staff and was CC'd in the emails. And Yelich has been in a long-term relationship with Sun Queen's Park columnist Brian Lilley.
Fisman received a wave of public support following the Sun article and the government's response — all the way up to Canada's deputy prime minister.
Brown himself said he was "glad" science table members "speak independently."
The Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table is made up of volunteers. Our academic members continue to speak independently, and I’m glad they do. See our full statement: https://t.co/ILfYStdP0f
— Adalsteinn (Steini) Brown (@SteiniBrown) January 28, 2021
But Fisman said Brown never told him he was involved in the statement.
"As you may recall he spoke out in my defence but that’s obviously quite interesting in the context of this email," he wrote in a statement to QPB.
"It may shine a bit of a different light on my science table resignation letters, where I suggested to Steini that public health needed some distance from politics. I think these emails may make that point better than I could have," he said.
"I still work with Steini as he’s my dean," Fisman said. "I’ll leave it at that."
With files from Andy Takagi.