Trudeau taps National Research Council head to lead Public Health Agency of Canada

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has tapped the president of the National Research Council to lead the Public Health Agency of Canada after the abrupt resignation of PHAC’s current president last week.

Iain Stewart, a long-serving bureaucrat, will assume the role of president of PHAC effective September 28 — giving the agency tasked with coordinating the country’s pandemic response a new leader just as caseloads are on the rise in Ontario and Quebec.

Stewart was just two years into his five-year term as the head of the National Research Council, the government’s primary scientific research organization.

The outgoing PHAC leader, Tina Namiesniowski, has been named a “senior official” in the Privy Council Office, the branch of government that serves the prime minister and cabinet.

In a letter to staff last week announcing her departure, Namiesniowski said she needs to “take a break” and “step aside so someone else can step up” to lead the agency as caseloads spike and testing times creep up in some parts of the country.

“You really need someone who will have the energy and the stamina to take the agency and our response to the next level,” she said in internal correspondence announcing her departure, which was later released by PHAC.

Before joining the research council, the Dalhousie University-educated Stewart was an assistant deputy minister at Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED), where he worked on national science and research policy.

PHAC has come in for criticism in recent months as Canada’s response to the COVID-19 crisis has been questioned by some critics. The pandemic has killed roughly 9,200 people in this country.

The federal government’s initial reluctance to close the border as the virus spread in Asia, its depleted national emergency stockpile of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the early months of this pandemic, confusing guidance on the wearing of masks and other perceived failures have been cited by opposition critics in Parliament and others as examples of Canada’s uneven response to COVID-19.

On Namiesniowski’s watch, some scientists working for the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN) complained that their early warnings about the threat of COVID-19 were ignored or inadequately addressed by senior staff at PHAC.

The network, a federal government-run monitoring and analysis unit, alerts senior officials to health risks around the globe by compiling media reports and other intelligence about outbreaks.

CBC News reported in April on concerns about the network’s alerts not being as widely disseminated as they had been during past health crises.