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Province says new Crown corporation for addictions research will be independent, objective

A proposed new Crown corporation for evaluating Alberta’s approach to addictions and mental health will be allowed to publish findings the government disagrees with, officials say.

“Whatever evidence comes out of the best possible research is what I, the minister, and we, the government, have to be listening to,” said Dan Williams, minister of mental health and addictions in a news conference on Tuesday.

An hour later, Williams tabled a bill in the legislature to create the Canadian Centre of Recovery Excellence (CoRE), an organization that will evaluate Alberta’s approach to combating mental health and addiction problems.

Bill 17, the Canadian Centre of Recovery Excellence Act, would create a Crown corporation governed by a five-member, government-appointed board, to be solely funded by the Alberta government.

In a background technical briefing, officials said the legislation includes guardrails to prevent partnerships with drug companies looking to conduct profit-driven research.

Williams told reporters that CoRE, which is planned to be based in Calgary, will partner with universities and other institutions to conduct research studies.

CoRE would be modelled after the Health Quality Council of Alberta, which has a similar mandate to evaluate provincial programs, recommend best practices, and conduct research on the province’s health-care system.

Its creation coincides with the government’s move to break Alberta Health Services into four new organizations, including Recovery Alberta, which will deliver mental health and addictions services. The government has not yet tabled a bill to create Recovery Alberta, but that is expected this spring.

Although other provincial and national governments have expressed interest in Alberta’s recovery-focused approach to tackling a deadly opioid poisoning crisis, critics say the UCP government’s tack is too focused on abstinence-based treatment and dismisses some harm reduction tactics.

More than four Albertans are dying each day from opioid poisoning, provincial data shows.

NDP mental health and addictions critic Janet Eremenko said the government should have structured the proposed Crown corporation differently if it wanted to assure the public that politicians won’t have undue influence over CoRE’s research and other activities.

“I’m not seeing anything in this legislation that actually ensures we can trust that objectivity is actually going to be put in place,” she said.

Academics are already conducting research and evaluation on the Alberta recovery model who are not under the government’s thumb, Eremenko said.

She compared CoRE to the Canadian Energy Centre — a contentious provincial corporation designed to be a “war room” that would fight back against bad press about Canadian oil and gas.

“I’m not clear why CoRE is going to be anything but a war room of sorts to confirm again what the premier has already decided to be true,” Eremenko said.

Although the legislation does not compel CoRE to publish its research findings, Williams told reporters one of its main purposes will be to work with academic partners to publish results in peer-reviewed journals.

“Our plan is not ideologically driven, but instead, human-driven,” he said earlier in the news conference.

While the Alberta government minimizes its use of harm reduction approaches, Williams said CoRE will evaluate evidence on all related topics, including a safe supply of illicit drugs, which the government opposes.

CoRE will also gather data from other ministries, including seniors, community and social services and justice to better understand, for example, how addictions affect people who have been incarcerated.

The legislation proposes CoRE be subject to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act to ensure patient privacy is protected. Officials said patients can opt out of their information being used in CoRE’s research.

Anticipating the legislation to pass as drafted, the government has budgeted $5 million for CoRE to start up this summer and operate this fiscal year. Its ultimate size and budget are yet to be determined.

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