A variety of pills are seen in this photo.
A variety of pills are seen in this photo. Credit: Myriam Zilles / Unsplash Credit: Myriam Zilles / Unsplash

In a better world, the conveniently timed post-election release of statistics showing Alberta had the deadliest month on record in April for fatal drug poisonings would have discredited the “Alberta Model” for treating addiction. 

Tragically, that is unlikely to happen.

Alberta’s United Conservative Party is addicted to inflicting ideological solutions on real world problems, so the probability is high no one in Premier Danielle Smith’s government will be tempted to reassess an approach that is clearly shaping up as a deadly failure. 

Statistics released by Alberta’s Substance Use Surveillance System on Monday showed that 179 human beings died from drug overdoses in Alberta in April. 

Media reported that the rate of deaths from drug poisonings was more than 46 per cent the number of people who died of the same cause in April 2022 and brought the total number of deaths so far this year to 613. This is dramatically higher than the rate of overdose deaths before the COVID-19 pandemic – 51 in April 2019. 

It was certainly no coincidence that Smith waited until after the May 29 provincial election to report the bad news.

“It is utterly unconscionable that she was lying about her success while six Albertans were dying every single day,” Edmonton-Riverview MLA Lori Sigurdson said in an NDP news release Monday. 

But whatever the statistics say, it is all but guaranteed the UCP will double down on its focus on drug abstinence, coerced treatment, and blaming the victims of drug addiction, and continue to oppose harm-reduction measures, based on sometimes spurious and usually ideological grounds. 

Many more Albertans are likely to die as a result.

This is not to say that other jurisdictions that have taken a different approach to Alberta’s unforgiving application of social conservative ideology to a generational tragedy do not have high death rates from opioid street drugs as well. 

The toll continues to be high in British Columbia, where the provincial government has worked with Ottawa to decriminalize small amounts of drugs and has a much more open attitude toward safe consumption clinics than Alberta. However, in May there were signs B.C.’s strategy was working to reduce deaths, with a 16 per cent decrease from May 2022 and a 19 per cent decrease from the previous month. 

Factors cited by the province’s chief coroner, CTV reported, included safe consumption clinics, overdose prevention sites, and safer supply in some communities.

But there is no question the opioid catastrophe plaguing every jurisdiction in North America is not going to go away anywhere soon. 

It should be obvious, though, that Alberta’s ideologically driven refusal to countenance safe consumption efforts, decriminalization, safe supply and other harm-mitigation measures is bound to have tragic consequences. 

The Smith government’s punitive, “war on drugs” approach – proven ineffective for nearly half a century – is deeply entrenched in the UCP’s political DNA. 

Consider the “joint statement” issued Monday by Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis and Mental Health and Addiction Minister Dan Williams, supposedly to coincide with the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking but more likely intended as a rhetorical antidote to the bad news contained in the latest drug-death statistics.

“The criminal actions of drug traffickers are abhorrent and will not be tolerated by Alberta’s government,” blustered Ellis, a former Calgary cop, in the press release. “We must have zero tolerance for the manufacturing, trafficking and dealing of these deadly and dangerous drugs.”

This belligerent and futile boilerplate could have come right out of the mouth of Richard Nixon, the American President who declared War on Drugs in 1971. We all know how that worked out. 

While much of the rest of the world edges toward the promising Portugal Model, Alberta is stuck in the 1970s with decades of failure and tragedy ahead. This is not reassuring. 

But the ideology of abstinence appeals to segments of the UCP’s social conservative base, even as many of the working people the party purports to champion succumb to the deadly allure of opioids, legal and illegal. 

As for Williams – apparently appointed to a health-related portfolio on the strength of his history of anti-abortion activism and best known for swilling illicit beer in the chamber of the Alberta legislature – he promised Albertans “the opportunity to pursue recovery,” but not necessarily the opportunity to survive long enough to take advantage of it. 

In the end, this is just more evidence of the Smith government doubling down on the abstinence and recovery model that may not work, but delivers big money for the UCP’s friends and family in the recovery business.

Naturally, it also appeals to the far right’s fondness for violent rhetoric, coercive responses, and simplistic solutions that privilege property and profit over humanity. 

Notley names NDP critics, government leaders

With a 38-member caucus, Alberta’s enlarged NDP Opposition certainly has the resources to torment the UCP’s supersized cabinet. 

Whether the NDP MLAs will torment the government effectively remains to be seen. That will need to mean more of what Opposition Leader Rachel Notley called “putting forward our own ideas” and less of “holding Premier Danielle Smith to account for breaking the law and threatening Alberta’s democracy.”

Leastways, it will if Notley is serious about “putting ourselves in a position to form the next provincial government.”

Notley announced the NDP’s critics and caucus leaders this week, and there’s literally something for everyone. Click here to see who has been assigned to what.

A few words on that Postmedia-Torstar merger scheme

The news that Postmedia, Canada’s original zombie newspaper chain, and the once-great Toronto Star have hatched a plot to combine their moribund and money-losing assets into an even bigger disaster may be appalling, but it’s no shock. 

Having essentially one newspaper chain – and one owned by foreign vulture capitalists at that – would be, in the words of the utterly ignored 1981 Royal Commission on Newspapers, “entirely unacceptable for a democratic society.” 

I have said plenty in the past about U.S.-owned Postmedia’s role in the destruction of Canadian journalism and the incomprehensible and ironic wastefulness of keeping these failing organs on life support with taxpayer dollars so they can churn out more far-right propaganda about the benefits of the market. 

Now, I will only say this: Every time Postmedia announces a plan to buy more newspapers, it promises to keep them independent and alive, and each time, it breaks its promise and closes many while amalgamating others. Its multitude of laughably bad websites all publish the same drivel with little local content. 

When the Star’s and Postmedia’s bosses said they need to join forces to fend off an “existential threat,” readers can be assured that the result will be more closed newspapers, more lousy near-identical websites, and more laid-off journalists.

If the Competition Bureau allows this merger, it too should be face an existential threat as a purposeless waste of money. 

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...