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Alberta Chooses Ideology over Evidence with Its Recovery War Room

The UCP’s politicized response to the drug crisis will put more lives at risk.

David Climenhaga 10 Apr 2024Alberta Politics

David J. Climenhaga is an award-winning journalist, author, post-secondary teacher, poet and trade union communicator. He blogs at AlbertaPolitics.ca. Follow him on X @djclimenhaga.

Alberta’s United Conservative Party government tabled legislation Tuesday to establish its previously announced Canadian Centre of Recovery Excellence, which appears to be the drug-treatment equivalent of the UCP’s notorious Alberta energy war room.

According to the province’s media release, Bill 17, the Canadian Centre of Recovery Excellence Act, 2024, will establish the centre as a Crown corporation “to inform best practices in mental health and addiction, conduct research and program evaluation and support the development of evidence-based policies for mental health and addiction.”

Given that, the organization’s motto could be “Best practices if ideologically acceptable, but not necessarily best practices.”

As we already know from the previously reported words of Kym Kaufmann, the centre’s soon-to-be-appointed CEO, the Crown corporation “will help the government advance the Alberta Recovery Model.”

And as we also know from concerns raised by many drug treatment professionals, the only model for the treatment of drug addiction that is acceptable to this rigidly ideological government is the “Recovery Model” cited in the names of both the centre and “Recovery Alberta,” the government’s new $1.13-billion public agency set up seemingly to ensure the clinical professionals at Alberta Health Services have no say in how the province responds to the drug crisis.

Harm reduction approaches to drug addiction, by contrast, are ideologically off limits and therefore strictly verboten by the UCP government. They are unlikely to be tolerated even if they could conclusively be shown to save lives and set the stage for recovery as victims of drug addiction grow older.

Given this reality — which Premier Danielle Smith and her political advisors have made clear repeatedly — it defies credulity that the centre will ever produce credible information about how best to deal with the drug addiction crisis afflicting all jurisdictions in Canada.

This is why it’s fair to compare the Crown corporation to that other misleadingly titled “Canadian” war room established by the UCP to boost oilsands development and attack environmentalists identified by former premier Jason Kenney as enemies of the people, the so-called Canadian Energy Centre.

The UCP frames the solution to the drug crisis in zero-sum terms: Only recovery treatments will work; harm-reduction is tantamount to handing out free drugs to helpless people, who must be swept from the streets and forced into recovery or death.

Given all this, the Recovery Model war room is certain to cherry pick its findings to support this Manichean view.

The problem, of course, is that elements of both harm reduction and recovery treatments are likely to be required to save lives and ease the addiction crisis, not to mention make the streets safer.

Consider the canned quote assigned to Mental Health and Addiction Minister Dan Williams in the government’s news release. “CoRE [the Canadian Centre of Recovery Excellence] will be an essential partner to government in assessing mental health and addiction services that produce strong outcomes for Albertans on the path to recovery,” he said. “The expanded research that CoRE will provide allows for more evidence-based decisions under the Alberta Recovery Model.”

Let’s parse these two sentences from the official record.

CoRE’s role will be “assessing mental health and addiction services that produce strong outcomes for Albertans on the path to recovery.” Albertans still using drugs, for all the minister apparently cares, can die now.

The research the war room supplies will result in “more evidence-based decisions under the Alberta Recovery Model.” Evidence that does not support the Alberta recovery model, we can assume, will be buried — as will many of the victims of this strategy.

Some might be inclined to accept Williams’ efforts to sound blandly reassuring about this point during Tuesday’s news conference about Bill 17 — if they were born yesterday.

When a reporter questioned why CoRE wouldn’t restrict its research partnerships to accredited universities, he responded that “there are a lot of other bodies, research institutes, think tanks etc., internationally; the Manhattan Institute in the United States is a good example.… We want to be able to make sure that we partner with the body that makes the most sense.” (The Manhattan Institute — which advocates school vouchers, scoffs at climate change and opposed Obamacare — is not a reassuring example.)

When the reporter asked, “You’re trying to produce propaganda, then?” and observed that “this is like the Canadian Energy War Room 2,” Williams responded snippily.

“You think universities aren’t capable of having a political bent?” he sneered.

“I’ll say first of all, this government will not participate in safe supply if that’s the so-called harm reduction you’re referring to,” he added moments later. “But this government has a number of different programs that support what people call harm reduction… and we want to see evaluation, positive or negative.”

In other words, it would be fair to conclude from the minister’s own words, the government wants only to evaluate what it has already decided will work.

In a statement, NDP Mental Health and Addictions critic Janet Eremenko called the Canadian Centre of Recovery Excellence “a complete waste of public resources [that] has been created to confirm what the premier has already decided to be true.”

Noting that Bill 17 will put the minister in charge of appointing CoRE’s board and executive leadership, and will let him sign off on the corporation’s research projects, she argued the legislation “holds the door open for maximum political interference.”

“CoRE reports to minister rather than being arm’s length and reporting to the assembly as a whole,” observed University of Calgary health law and policy professor Lorian Hardcastle in a tweet thread. This adds many concerns about the independence of the organization from government, she concluded.

Since the minister gets to choose the CEO and chief scientific officer, she wondered if they would be chosen for “their expertise in addictions” or because they share “the government’s ideological views on harm reduction.”

According to the Progress Report, CEO designate Kaufmann is a former deputy minister of mental health and community wellness in Manitoba who left that position soon after the NDP took over as government last fall. Before working for the Manitoba Conservatives, the online publication reported, “she was the CEO of Eden Healthcare Services, a faith-based mental health care company based in Manitoba. She has no research experience.”

“Now we have a government that wants to fund ‘research,’” tweeted physician Jon Meddings, former dean of the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine. “No mention (at least yet) of how proposals would be evaluated. Expert assessment or ideological bias? If the latter it would be the worst use of money yet by our [government].”

It is also important to note that despite the ministry’s name, this policy direction by the Smith government has everything to do with addictions and precious little to do with mental health or corrections.

As is evident from the government’s massive propaganda effort on behalf of this policy, mental health and corrections are little more than afterthoughts as far as the UCP is concerned.

They appear to have been stuffed into the Recovery Alberta silo and the minister’s portfolio to lend a little credibility to the “Alberta Model” of drug treatment and probably to wreak more revenge on Alberta Health Services for its public health response to the pandemic.

The UCP may think “you have to be crazy to take drugs,” but obviously not everyone afflicted by mental illness is in that circumstance because of drug addiction, nor is every person in conflict with the justice system either addicted or suffering from mental illness.

Putting mental illness into an administrative silo intended to score political points, undermine AHS and drum up business for an unregulated and unscientific private-sector drug-treatment industry in which quackery and exploitation is rife is not going to result in better treatment for the mentally ill.

On the contrary, fallout from this may turn out to be the greatest tragedy of the UCP’s destructive dismantling of AHS.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Politics, Alberta

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