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Swann eager to makea difference

Calgary doctor traded stethoscope for seat in Alberta legislature
By Renata D'Aliesio, Calgary Herald
November 28, 2008

Race To Be Leader

The Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal profile the three men running for leadership of the Alberta Liberals. Today: David Swann Saturday: Dave Taylor Sunday: Mo Elsalhy



Early in his career as a doctor, David Swann learned of the limitations of healing. He had just completed his family medicine residency in 1975 when he signed up to work for three years in mission hospitals in racially segregated South Africa.

A wide-eyed physician, just 26 years old, Swann thought he could make a significant difference in his patients' lives. He quickly realized while he could heal some of their illnesses, he was powerless to change the circumstances undermining their health--poverty, violence, apartheid.

"I was pretty naive. I thought medicine could do a lot for these people," Swann recalls of his first medical experience after graduation.

"We would patch people up and get them back into their communities, but they would be back in the hospital because of a lack of safe living conditions."

Frustration supplanted his naivete. Yet it took three decades, including a highly publicized firing and journeys to small-town Alberta, the Philippines and Iraq, before Swann was ready to swap his stethoscope for a seat in the Alberta legislature and bid to become the next provincial Liberal leader.


Swann was born in Taber, a southern Alberta community known chiefly for its sweet corn. Second-eldest of five children, he was an infant when his parents, Richard and Margaret, moved to Calgary.His father accepted a position with Canadian Fina, eventually heading the company's oil and gas exploration.

At an early age, he knew he wanted to become a doctor.

"I've known all my life that I wanted to make a difference," Swann says, sitting in his Sunnyside home, just north of downtown.

After graduating from Calgary's Western Canada High School, Swann enrolled at the University of Alberta in 1967.As he worked toward a bachelor of medical science, the lanky six-foot-four student played on the school's Golden Bears basketball team.

Teammate Larry Nowak remembers he and Swann (Nowak was studying engineering) were juggling difficult academic programs and playing ball.

"He was very committed to his studies and very committed to the team. He never missed a practice," says Nowak, who today lives in British Columbia.

Their coach, Barry Mitchelson, had the job of moulding the young group of athletes, guiding them to the national championship tournament in 1969.


Life and times of David Swann - Born on June 19,1949, in Taber. Second-oldest of fivekids. - Married fornearly 30 yearsto Laureen Ross. They have three children, Kirsten, Ta ndela and Nathan, and three grandchildren. - His hobbies include jogging, woodworking, writing, singing and playing guitar. - He's active in peace and human-rights issues, focusing recently on the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. Last year, Swann went on a 14-day hunger strike to draw attention to the issue. - His current reading list includes, Influencer, The Shock Doctrine, BlessedUnrest, and Rick Mercer's comedic look at Canadian politics. Swann has outlined four keypoliciesinhis leadership bid: - Economy--Hewants to diversify Alberta's economytosecureits long-term prosperity, balancing economic, social and environmentalneeds. - Health care --He wants to focus more health resources on keeping people healthy, instead of waiting forthem to get sick and requiring expensive treatment. - Education -- He advocates for small classsizes, supportfor children with special needs, and ensuring qualified high school graduates have guaranteed access to colleges, universities and technical schools. - Environment--Swann believes the linksofeconomic and environmentalhealth areundeniable and not in conflict. Hewould push foralongterm waterand land-useplan and the expansion of renewable energyn resource development.

Swann eager to make a difference

In Swann, Mitchelson says he found a team player who could score from mid-range and worked hard on defence.

"He was a good teammate, and that's the most important thing in sports,"says Mitchelson, who was deputy minister of parks and recreation under the Lougheed and Getty governments after his coaching days.

After finishing his MD and residency, Swann jumped at the chance to work in South Africa.

So did fellow University of Alberta medical student Laureen Ross, who grew up in Vermilion, a two-hour drive east of Edmonton.

The pair had a mutual attraction while classmates in Edmonton. A relationship flourished in the troubled African country.

The story of who proposed to whom depends on who's telling the tale. Swann says he popped the question, but Ross suggests she initiated the conversation.

Ross was set to leave South Africa to study in the United States.

"Are we going to carry on with our relationship?How serious is this?" she remembers asking.

Their conversation in a mission hospital turned into an engagement. They married a year later, in 1979, in a Vermilion prairie church, a South African priest presiding over their ceremony.

It was in another church, in Pincher Creek, where former town mayor, Art Bonertz, met the newly married couple.

A husband-and-wife doctor team had just left the southern Alberta community. Eager to work in a small town, Swann and Ross rounded out a six-member family practice.

The newlyweds became fixtures in the community. All three of their children, Kirsten, Tandela and Nathan, were born in Pincher Creek. They raised chickens, sheep and horses and enjoyed exploring the nearby mountains. Bonertz joined Swann and three others in a barbershop group, singing the classics.

After seven years in Pincher Creek, the family moved to Calgary for a new challenge.

Swann wanted to shift into public health and prevention, enrolling in University of Calgary for four years of specialty training. Upon graduation, he took off with his family to the Philippines to co-ordinate a primary health care project for 100 communities.

He went to the southeast Asian island feeling hopeful. As with his stint in South Africa, he returned disillusioned. In the Philippines in the late 1980s, he saw the results of a "free market gone wild,"environmental decline, and people desperate for health care.

Swann would later encapsulate his observations in Canada and the New American Empire, a collection of essays from several writers published in 2004.

"As one Filipino peasant said in despair to me, 'If I speak about the corruption I will be killed. If I don't speak about it, my family and I will starve!'" wrote Swann, who titled his essay, Finding My Voice for Peace.

Back in Alberta, Swann was increasingly finding his political voice.

After the Philippines, the family resettled in Sunnyside, across from a small neighbourhood park where Swann and longtime neighbour Jim Besse would sometimes play shinny hockey with their kids.

The pair and others fought to have the park declared pesticide free in 1998, the first such designation in Calgary.

Besse, a retired oil and gas engineer, says Swann "walks the talk." He often sees him riding his bicycle. Swann's home is outfitted with solar panels to heat the water. And when he travels to Edmonton, he takes the bus.

In 2001, Swann took on the role of medical officer of health for the Palliser health regions.

Believing that public policy and medical care were closely connected, he openly questioned whether intensive livestock operations were contributing to asthma cases, argued that gun control reduces shooting injuries, and contended the Alberta government should accept the Kyoto accord to tackle climate change and health-related effects.

Swann's Kyoto call, presented in his capacity as president of the Society of Alberta Medical Officers of Health, got him fired from the Palliser Health Region in the fall of 2002. It sparked a public outcry and accusations of political interference, as the Alberta government was fighting against Kyoto.

A majority of Palliser board members felt Swann overstepped his medical duties by talking about political issues. However Dr. Fredrykka Rinaldi, president of Palliser medical staff association then, felt Swann had stood up for an important principle: A physician's right to speak out on behalf of their patients' health.

At a meeting in which Palliser offered Swann his job back, board members told him: "Stop talking about politics and get back to health," Swann recalls.

"They didn't see the connection with climate change and health, gun control and health."

Their differing visions led Swann to reject the job.

Instead, a new career door opened. The Liberals, NDP and Greens all hoped to lure him as a candidate.

Instead, Swann went to Iraq in late 2002 on behalf of the organization Physicians for Global Survival.

He wanted to document the country's medical state as talk of war in the United States ramped up.

Today he takes solace that Canada stayed out of the conflict.

Shortly after his return from Iraq, Swann finally decided to leap into politics running for the Liberals in Calgary-Mountain View, upsetting Tory veteran Mark Hlady in 2004.

Win or lose the Liberal leadership race, Swann says he's sticking with politics.

"I was scared about politics,"he says. "I had never seen myself as a public character.

"But this feels like this is where I am meant to be."

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