Welcome to Alberta, the Richest Place on Earth, where body lice are showing up on residents of homeless shelters, an affliction normally associated with Third World refugee camps.

Earlier this week, University of Alberta infectious diseases specialist Dr. Stan Houston warned colleagues in an email of “a very powerful health indicator of the kind of poverty we are seeing (and creating) in this, one of the wealthiest political jurisdictions in the world.”

To wit, said Houston: “Last week, for the first time in my life, including seven years in Africa, I saw a patient of mine with a body louse infestation. He had been living in city shelters, so there has to be more where that came from.”

Houston added that he had immediately notified public health authorities.

The appearance of body lice in Alberta is significant for two reasons, he observed:

1)    “This is a marker of extreme, refugee-camp-like conditions.”

2)    Body lice, unlike the much more familiar head or pubic louse, can transmit several potentially life-threatening diseases, although the ones that showed up here don’t appear to have been doing so.

Let’s repeat one point for emphasis: “This is a marker of extreme, refugee-camp-like conditions.”

This indicates “really severe deprivation of people living in really awful conditions,” Houston added in a CBC story following up on his email to colleagues.

And Dr. Mat Rose of Edmonton’s Boyle McCauley Health Clinic told the CBC reporter he’s been seeing an increase in body lice infestation cases this year, up to as many as three times a week.

These reports are really not an auspicious beginning to Alberta’s new era of austerity, which was officially announced by Alberta Premier Alison Redford in her Sad Sack State of the Province Address a few days before Houston made his troubling discovery.

In fairness to Alberta’s Progressive Conservative government, it has actually funded some effective programs to create housing for the homeless that are making progress getting people off the streets and into permanent shelter.

Homeward Trust Edmonton has conducted counts of the number of homeless people in Edmonton since 1999, and that census of the homeless suggests progress is being made.

The count conducted on Oct. 15 and 16, 2012, indicated there were 2,174 homeless individuals in the city, including 223 dependent children — down from 2,421 in 2010 and well over 3,000 in 2008.

But such advances are easily derailed by Alberta’s perpetually mismanaged boom-and-bust economy, which as the Edmonton Homeless Commission notes, attracts immigrants to the region who expect work will be easy to find and discover a much tougher reality.

Moreover, while some progress is clear, the severity of the problem may not be. Homeless numbers are naturally difficult to pin down with confidence, and there have long been rumours — never confirmed — of a policy by Edmonton city officials enacted with the assistance of local police to roust homeless people from known camping spots in the North Saskatchewan River Valley the nights before the annual homeless count.

Regardless, it’s really former premier Ed Stelmach who deserves credit for moving the issue of homelessness to the front burner and ensuring funding began flowing into housing — an initiative that insiders attribute to the former premier’s strong Ukrainian Catholic religious faith.

But with Redford in the premier’s office — and the far-right Wildrose Party really driving the province’s policy bus — there should be serious concern that policies influenced by Stelmach’s social gospel worldview will turn out to have fallen on stony ground, where they sprang up quickly but did not take root.

As Albertans now know, the PCs’ commitment to “sustainable and predictable funding” for essential provincial programs turned out to be a mile wide and an inch deep.

In the face of a downward fluctuation in petroleum prices and the entirely foreseeable Wildrose Party screeches about the horror of deficits and the need for immediate cuts, Redford and Finance Minister Doug Horner seem to have immediately caved.

Both parties are now dominated by neoconservatives, after all, with agendas that are not strikingly different on most counts.

We’ll know more when the Budget Speech is read on March 7. But as this is written, Alberta Health Services employees are braced for an announcement of significant reductions in the government’s promised 4.5-per-cent funding increase that was supposed to ensure health care in Alberta could operate on a sustainable predictable basis.

When the inevitable impact of what will in effect be a significant cut in the face of population growth and inflation begins to be felt, stand by for the usual calls from the Wildrose benches for more privatization and delisting of services as a solution.

That the Wildrose Party would end up setting the agenda for Alberta anyway was always the danger when the Redford PCs persuaded large numbers of progressive voters to support them in keeping Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith out of the premier’s office.

Now that this is coming to pass, it is hard to imagine that the Third World conditions among this province’s poor will not grow worse as a result.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...