Sherman is typical immigrant success story in some ways
By Christopher Walsh
Raj Sherman was born in a desert in India and moved to British Columbia at four with his parents and brothers. His father worked labour jobs where he could find them despite having a masters degree and his mother cleaned toilets with a teaching degree.
It’s the classic Canadian immigrant success story. Raj worked at a mill as a kid in Sqaumish, B.C., moved to Calgary with a brother where he cleaned toilets at Motel Village, worked other odd jobs including driving a cab back in the 80s to put himself through medical school at the University of Alberta, moved to Nelson, B.C. to work at a senior’s practice, and eventually moved back to Alberta to become a formerly trained emergency and trauma doctor.
It was in this role that Sherman became politically involved, whether he wanted it or not. As head of emergency room doctors in Alberta, Sherman bore witness to the failings, overcrowdings and outright mismanagement of ERs that led to needless deaths of patients in 2006.
He still remembers the 17-year-old girl in Calgary who died from vomiting and diarrhea, when dehydration claimed her life before she was seen by a doctor.
“That and the others were preventable,” he says, riding shotgun in his campaign truck as we leave a campaign announcement in northeast Calgary on the way to a door-knocking blitz.
Sherman says five people died in ERs in 2006, five more than necessary to raise a red flag and inform Calgary’s chief of health services that a serious crisis was unfolding.
“The emergency room is the canary in the coal mine,” Sherman says, “the barometer of the health care system. People were dying.”
And then there were the others who went home after waiting for five hours only to return days later in worse condition.
By 2007, Sherman was getting tired of government officials ignoring doctors when they raised concerns about the health care system. The Health Quality Council’s report into the state of emergency rooms across the province was made available to the Progressive Conservatives and, again, they ignored most of the report’s recommendations.
“I said, we have to stop whining and complaining; let’s bring solutions,” Sherman says. “We’re the experts, we know what the problems are. Maybe the politicians don’t know or maybe they don’t care.”
The PCs rejigged their emergency room policy after the report, but Sherman says all it did was move patients from the ER into hallways upstairs.
So it was time to get involved on the political level and run for the party that would make him one of the guys at the table making the decisions. It just didn’t work out the way Sherman had hoped.
After being elected in as a Conservative in 2008, he was booted out of caucus in 2010 for objecting to his party’s handling of health care. It was a matter of conscience, he says. No longer could he sit back and watch the system fall apart.
Sherman says the solution to the health care crisis is a mix of home-care, long-term care, more family doctors and accountability in the system at the local level.
“But, instead we’re still putting people in hallways six years later. It’s absolutely tragic, it should have only been for six months,” he says.
Staring out the truck window as it races along 32 Ave, Sherman is thinking to himself about the health care mess.
“Alison Redford is on another planet,” he finally offers. “I don’t know what she’s thinking.”
We arrive in a predominantly immigrant neighbourhood in the northeast where Sherman hits the streets with supporters of candidate Narita Sherman (a Calgary teacher and his niece). On the trail he is all energy, running from door to door to speak to anyone who’s home.
At the end of a street, Saidagan Akhtari, has just made it back home with a few bags of groceries for his family. The labourer, who immigrated to Calgary from the Middle East in 1999, listens as Sherman lays out his plan to eliminate tuition by the time Akhtari’s four and two year old are ready for university. And Sherman tells him his plan to lower power rates, eliminate mandatory public school fees and of course fix the public health system within two years.
All of it sounds good, Akhtari says, but how will you pay for it?
“Are you a rich guy?” Sherman asks.
“No. I’m a hard worker. Six days a week,” Akhtari says.
“Well the rich guys and the big companies, they’re gonna have to pay their share of tax so your children can have an education and a chance. Anyone, whether you’re rich or poor should have good access to public health care. Would you support that?
Akhtari agrees to have a sign put up on his lawn, Sherman shakes his hand and bolts off down the street to the next house.
Sherman is a strange political animal. He actually enjoys door-knocking and when the media calls he gets back to them himself, without any coaching from his communications specialist. It is the most real — at times brutally — honest campaign perhaps ever seen in Alberta. He is so approachable, most people are shocked by his candour.
The fact he rides shotgun may also be a sign of a candidate still in touch with the people. In 2008, Alberta Liberal leader Kevin Taft would ride in the back seat behind the heavily painted windows so nobody could see him. But Raj is right there, taking it all in.
It’s the integrity with which he’s running his campaign and by which he has led his public life that shines through after talking to him for an afternoon. He’s open and frank about any question you can throw at him. Like Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, Sherman’s greatest asset is also his greatest liability: he’s not a politician.
Jeff Melland, Sherman’s communications man, left a job with the British Columbia Liberals to join Raj in January.
“I left a steady, sure job to do this,” Melland says at a stop in the afternoon. “I have no guarantee of anything here and I have a young family to support. But I’ve never seen a candidate like Raj. It’s his integrity. This is the candidate Canadians say they want.”
Maybe. But have Albertans recognized that? Is the message getting through?
On the way down to the Drop-In Centre, I asked Raj about the move to the Liberals and why he felt the need to lead the party instead of acting as health critic for the Opposition.
“To fix these complex issues, it does require leadership. Healthcare and education requires leadership that actually understands the issues,” he says.
“If you want to run government programs efficiently, you have to decrease the amount of management and invest in front lines. And you have to show them respect. Respect, engage and empower the people who actually do the work.”
And then there are the other “tough issues” that require leadership, Sherman adds, like raising taxes on the rich and big business in the province.
“The top 10 per cent and the big corporations have to pay their fair share of tax so we can give Albertans the public health care and public education they need,” he says. “And so we can balance the budget.
“The [other parties] don’t have the courage because their buddies are getting away with billions of dollars and the average working family is getting screwed. I’m here to fight for the working families. It’s okay to make a buck in this province. It’s okay to succeed. The guys on the far left want to shut down the oilsands and kill all the jobs; you’ve got guys on the far right who want to shut down families and wreck their lives. We need a strong, sensible, centrist leader who respects public healthcare and public education. And human rights.”
Sherman also shares his message for the Conservatives and the Wildrose on social issues like conscience rights and abortion.
“This is Alberta, not Alabama,” he says. “Alison Redford wants to take Alberta 20 years into the past and Danielle Smith wants to take us 40 years into the past.”
On the way out of the Drop-In Centre, I was still thinking about the man who had screamed at Sherman about the committee-that-never-meets pay. It makes sense the man was pissed off about that, but the part I don’t get is his firm, unquestionable support for the PCs. Here’s a man who has been incarcerated, has obvious emotional and mental issues, is spending Easter at a homeless shelter and yet he’s voting for the same thing he always has. That is Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Perhaps he has more in common with the Alberta voting public than I initially thought.
“Well, it’s like I tell my children,” Sherman offers on the way out. “We need to understand these people and take care of them. I’ve seen them a lot in the emergency rooms over the years. But isn’t it ironic to be here at Easter? Jesus looked after these people who’ve had a bad break in life.”
“Yeah,” his driver Jon says, about to paraphrase an old quote. “When I feed the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why they have no food they call me a communist.”
Raj thinks about that for a long time quietly.
“Have they called you that, yet?” I ask.
“No. But just about everything else.”