POLITICS

Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman learned to fight bullies at early age

03/26/2012 12:07 EDT | Updated 05/26/2012 05:12 EDT
EDMONTON - Raj Sherman was born in the stifling heat of India's Thar Desert, and raised in the verdant greenery of Uttar Pradesh, but by age seven he found himself staring up at a towering bank of snow outside his new home in Squamish, B.C.

When he went to school he got beat up.

A lot.

The leader of Alberta's Liberals says his life in what was then a rough-and-tumble mill town halfway between Whistler and Vancouver toughened his hide for the bully-boy culture of Alberta politics.

"There was a lot of despair in that town," Sherman says. "A lot of discrimination."

The kid who arrived speaking only Hindi and Punjabi got beat up because he looked different. Or because he wasn't white. Or just because.

Sherman's dad had the crappiest cleanup job at the mill, which meant someone else's dad didn't have work at all. Put up your dukes, kid.

"I got used to taking an ass-kicking."

It was often two against one. Or three against one.

When the Indian Army raided the sacred Golden Temple at Amritsar in 1984, the Sikhs in Squamish turned on him, too.

"It was like double discrimination."

The key to self-defence, he says, was to lose one's fear of getting pulped. And the only way to do that was to, well, get pulped.

"You've got to learn how to take a beating."

Eventually Sherman began giving as good as he got. When his tormentors returned with reinforcements, he brought in his three brothers.

After a while, he says, "nobody messed with the Sherman boys in Squamish. Nobody."

Sherman, 45, came to Canada with his mother in 1972. They were joining his father who had come years earlier to start a new life.

Dad worked double shifts at the mill while Mom tried to raise Sherman and siblings between stints as a seamstress.

Eventually, things got better.

Sherman was getting straight Cs in Grade 5 as he continued to master English. By high school he was at the top of his class, a star athlete getting straight As.

In basketball he was a 5-foot-10 forward with a pterodactyl wing span and a three-foot vertical jump.

In baseball the long-armed kid threw an 85 mph fastball.

He dreamed of playing pro tennis until he got clocked by a guy with world-class talent.

After high school he dabbled in computers, got bored, decided to become a teacher, but saw few job prospects.

Finally, he chose medicine, studying at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

He went on the front lines in the 1990s just as the system started spiralling down.

Under then-premier Ralph Klein, beds were closing while the government struggled with deficit and debt. The Calgary General Hospital was dynamited in 1998 in the name of progress.

As the new doc on the block, Sherman found himself on the graveyard shift in the emergency ward at Edmonton's inner-city Royal Alexandra Hospital.

"We would have 32 beds in the emergency room with 31 admitted patients," he recalls.

"You'd be running a major trauma centre with one bed."

He saw some of the city's worst attacks. He stitched up knife victims and bloodied spouses. Every night a senior would collapse in the waiting room waiting hours to be seen.

Sherman spoke up at doctor meetings.

"This is crap!" He remembers telling them. "We have to do something."

The docs just stared back. No one else in the room was the poor sod on the midnight shift.

By the turn of the decade, Sherman was focusing on emergency room medicine as he dropped from the sky in a blood-red medical helicopter to grisly car crashes.

Meanwhile, the problems in hospital emergency rooms were getting worse. Wait times were on the rise. More and more elderly patients were taking up acute-care beds because there weren't any long-term ones.

Sherman drafted solutions and they were seized on by then Progressive Conservative health minister Dave Hancock.

This guy was a keeper, the government caucus decided.

The Tories urged him to run for office. He won in Edmonton-Meadowlark in 2008.

He became junior health minister, but when he arrived, Hancock was gone and in his place was Ron Liepert, seen by many as an abrasive bully on the front benches, famous for bluntness bordering on contempt.

According to a damning Health Quality Council report released earlier this year, it was under Liepert that a health system struggling to gain speed instead flew off the tracks and hit the ditch.

In 2008, all the health regions were collapsed into one giant superboard. There was little consultation or notice. Administrative chaos ensued. Turf wars broke out.

Patients suffered for even longer periods in emergency rooms. Sherman's father was forced to wait hours on multiple occasions for treatment for the degenerating heart that eventually took his life.

Doctors began to complain and administrators responded by threatening ostracism or loss of privileges.

Worse still, the government ignored repeated recommendations to reduce the "bed blockers" by building new long-term care beds.

Sherman was angered by the bass-ackwards approach and was appalled at Liepert's curt treatment of front-line staff.

His private angst spilled out into public criticism of then-premier Ed Stelmach, cabinet and "knucklehead" senior health administrators. He was kicked out of caucus, joined the Liberals and last year won the job to become party leader.

Now sitting across the floor, he continues to push for change, relentlessly standing in the house to demand an inquiry into allegations of bullying and intimidation of doctors.

That same Health Quality report took Sherman to task, saying there was no proof to his claim that 250 patients died on a lung surgery wait list, and that doctors had been coerced or bribed to keep quiet about it.

Sherman says the truth is still out there, but Liepert used the report recently to beat up on Sherman's credibility.

"He does not have the courage to stand up in this assembly and apologize for that (accusation)," said Liepert in question period as the Tories pounded their desk for 30 seconds in approval.

Sherman just ignored him and kept on fighting.

He'd seen this act before.