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Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan's Chief Medical Health Officer, speaks at a COVID-19 news update at the Legislative Building in Regina on March 18, 2020.Michael Bell/The Canadian Press

Saskatchewan’s Chief Medical Health Officer Saqib Shahab has been heartened by public support in the province after a small group of protesters gathered outside his home last weekend, but expressed concern they felt emboldened enough to show up metres from his door.

Canadian public-health officials haven’t faced the same level of personal attacks as their American peers – attacks that have at times been framed around officials’ race, gender, sexual orientation and appearance, and have in some cases led to resignations and early retirements. But public-health officials across the country have faced harassment and threats.

Both Dr. Shahab and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said the protesters, who held signs questioning the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic outside of Dr. Shahab’s house, where his family also lives, went a step too far.

“It’s a long year and it’s creating pressures for everyone,” Dr. Shahab told reporters, speaking about the incident for the first time on Tuesday.

But noting he feels sorry for both his family, and his neighbours, he said the space for protest doesn’t extend to someone’s private home – where he was working on Saturday, just like any other weekend during the pandemic.

“I kept doing my work,” Dr. Shahab said, when asked how the protest affected him personally.

But he did note that social media, with all its benefits, also can create toxic echo chambers and radicalize those susceptible to it. “No one should be targeted because of race, religious beliefs, gender, sexual orientation,” he said, responding to questions from reporters about whether there is any indication racism contributed to the protests he has faced.

The support “by the vast majority of the public was more eloquent than I can ever be and gives wind to my sails,” Dr. Shahab added.

Mr. Moe called the protesters “idiots” on the weekend and stated that “disagreeing with decisions made by our government gives no one the right to harass a dedicated public servant and his family.”

On Tuesday, the Premier told reporters the protest was unacceptable because it moved from “protesting a government decision to protesting a person.” He added that his government will provide security to ensure Dr. Shahab and his family are safe and will examine how it might improve security for public officials. He said the protest was “disturbing” and pointed to a broader trend where peaceful protest morphs into something like the pro-Trump riot at the U.S. Capitol earlier this month.

But the Premier also noted the street is a public space and said it’s yet unclear whether a Regina police investigation will result in charges being laid.

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam and health officials in Ontario and Atlantic Canada have also been subject to hateful messages, according to a report in the National Post. And in September, B.C. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry also disclosed that she has been subjected to hate mail and threats against her life.

“There are many people who don’t like what I do, or don’t like the way I say it, or don’t like my shoes and feel quite able to send me nasty notes, to leave phone calls, to harass my office staff,” Dr. Henry said. “I’ve had to have security in my house. I’ve had death threats.”

On Monday, a 28-year-old Alberta man was charged with making threatening statements toward the Chief Public Health Officer of the Northwest Territories. Police say threats were made over the phone on Jan. 20 during a call to the office of Kami Kandola.

Police did not reveal the nature of the threats, but said it was concerning.

In Alberta, the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Deena Hinshaw, said she was disappointed to see the news about the protest outside Dr. Shahab’s home. Dr. Hinshaw said she has heard a range of opinions from Albertans, including from those opposed to infection-control measures. She did not speak to whether there have been any incidents that have raised concerns about her own safety.

“Some have expressed those opinions in very respectful ways, even when they have disagreed,” she said on Tuesday.

“Others have been less respectful.”

Dr. Hinshaw added she has heard about incidents in recent weeks that public-health inspectors, immunization staff and other front-line workers have been mistreated and verbally abused while on the job.

“We recognize that Albertans are worried right now about their health, families, finances and their future,” she said. “I understand that continuing to follow COVID-19 restrictions is difficult. But harassment is never okay and it will not be accepted.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

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