Gary Waters was homeless earlier this year when he heard about a program that offered free dental work to low-income Calgarians.

When the client of Calgary’s Mustard Seed street ministry looked into the program, he found more than just free dental. It also included nutrition and lifestyle counselling, a series of tests and a vitamin regimen — all at no cost.

Waters signed up and says he hasn’t been sick since.

Pure North founder

Calgarian Allan Markin is one of Alberta’s best known businessmen and philanthropists.

Now a part-owner of the Calgary Flames, Markin, 68, trained as a chemical engineer before he became the chairman of Canadian Natural Resources Limited in 1989.

Under Markin’s leadership, CNRL went from having a handful of employees to becoming a major player in heavy oil production and the oilsands. It now employs thousands and has a market value of close to $35 billion.

Donations

University of Calgary:  $18 million to establish "Institute for Public Health," the largest gift from a single U of C donor.

St. Mary's University College: $20 million lifetime donation.

University of Alberta: $20 million to expand a healthy-eating program for Edmonton school kids.

University of Lethbridge: Markin Hall houses the School of Health Sciences and the Faculty of Management.

Pure North S’Energy Foundation: Approximately $65 million in 2010, 2011, 2012.

Awards

Calgary Citizen of the Week, 2004

Order of Canada, 2008

Alberta Order of Excellence, 2008

Calgary Business Hall of Fame, 2009

“I just found the attitude there completely different from clinics,” says Waters.

“There was generally a feeling of well-being and care and interest there. Where generally, if you don't have a family doctor and you're anywhere near homeless, they just rush you through and kick you through the system and give you minimal amount of care and throw you out."

What Waters signed on to is a preventive health-care program from Pure North S’Energy Foundation​.

Allan Markin, one of Calgary’s wealthiest oil executives and part owner of the Calgary Flames, founded Pure North and has, so far, spent tens of millions of dollars to support it.

Waters is one of roughly 21,000 people — from homeless people to energy executives — in Alberta and B.C. who have signed on to Pure North’s preventive health program.

Now Pure North is looking for provincial funding to expand its program, and questions are being raised about both the efficacy of the treatments and whether public money should support what some call alternative health treatments.

Pure North says its mission is to prevent disease and illness, ultimately saving health-care dollars.

Participants are given a wide variety of high-dose vitamins and supplements. But some say participants are often given these vitamins and supplements at much higher doses than recommended by Health Canada.

A different type of care 

Pure North also offers lifestyle counselling and the opportunity to have mercury fillings removed from their teeth.

Pure North representatives say research shows its program helps participants lower their blood pressure, reduce their chances of developing diabetes and generally feel better.

According to its own data, if the Pure North program were expanded province-wide, the resulting health improvements could save the province $500 million a year on hospital and physician costs.

“We think the government should step in, not to cover our costs but to make the program available to more people and sustainable,” says Pure North spokesman Jack Davis, who is also the former head of the Calgary Health Region.

“We think it's good public policy to do this."

Davis calls Pure North “profoundly important” and says there is no other preventive health program like it in the world.

Vitamins

A preventive health-care program from Pure North S'Energy Foundation provides clients with vitamins, as well as other services like nutrition counselling. They are now looking for provincial funding to expand the program. (Katy Anderson/CBC)

Until recently, all of Pure North’s services were free except for some shipping and handling charges. Now “vulnerable populations” such as the homeless and low-income seniors continue to receive the supplements, dental care and counselling for free. Other participants pay on a cost-recovery basis.

Dr. Lara Nixon, a physician who works primarily with low-income elderly patients, says Pure North is not safe enough for her to recommend it.  

"It's a real gamble with older people, who are on other medications and who have health issues — cardiac, kidney, liver — which impact how the body experiences and processes drugs. That's my biggest concern."

Other doctors echo Nixon's concerns about the program being offered to vulnerable people who may not understand what they are taking and may be on other medication that doesn't interact well with the supplements. 

There is also a complaint before the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons about Pure North. It alleges that the plethora of tests ordered for participants is a waste of time and unnecessary.

As a result, Nixon does not think Pure North should receive public funding.

Dr. Ron Hunninghake, a member of the Pure North board, disagrees.

Hunninghake says traditional Western medicine is "ultra conservative, backwards even," when it comes to understanding nutrition. He says he’s not surprised there is push back from Alberta physicians.

"It's a different paradigm of care. He [Markin] is not trying to treat disease, he's trying to improve health and build healthy cellular functioning and let the body's natural healing mechanisms work more effectively.”

The provincial government says it has not, at this point, given any money to Pure North.