Alberta government announces Calgary task force focused on addiction and homeless
It follows similar collaboration announced in Edmonton earlier this week
The provincial government says it is forming a task force to respond to ongoing challenges surrounding addictions, homelessness and public safety in Calgary.
It comes on the heels of a similar task force in Edmonton announced earlier this week.
"We've heard loud and clear from municipalities across Alberta about the need for a collaborative approach, and we are committing to that, including right here in Calgary," said Rebecca Schulz, Alberta's minister of municipal affairs, during a press event Friday at the McDougall Centre in Calgary.
In both Calgary and Edmonton, opinion has been divided on how best to approach challenges surrounding homelessness, especially during periods of cold weather. In both cities, homelessness has driven people to take shelter in transit stations when temperatures dip.
The Calgary task force will include four provincial cabinet ministers and Alberta Health Services officials as well as representatives from nearby First Nations. Ward 1 Coun. Sonya Sharp and Coun. Andre Chabot of Ward 10 are involved on the task force, as is city manager David Duckworth.
In a release, Chabot said the two councillors were looking forward to working with the provincial government, adding that the funds would "dovetail nicely" with city investments in mental health and addictions programs in the recent budget.
In November, council voted to allocate an additional $19 million to support the city's mental health and addictions strategy, though at that time, both Chabot and Sharp had voted against such an addition.
Calgary mayor kept in the loop
Schulz said Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek was aware of the task force and would be encouraged to share her input moving forward. On Thursday, Gondek suggested she had been made aware of the initiative.
"I am pleased to see the establishment of a local task force to determine the most effective and meaningful approaches to creating a co-ordinated delivery model around housing, mental health and addictions support that is much needed in Calgary," Gondek wrote in a release issued Friday.
That differed from the experience of Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, who told reporters he was unaware of the formation of the task force. He suggested that because council did not deliberate who would represent them, that the two councillors involved could not speak for Edmonton's council.
"I'm glad that they're finally stepping up to recognize that the problems that the [provincial] under-investments have created are having severe consequences not only for people but for businesses," Sohi said earlier this week. "We are losing people every day. People are dying because of lack of investment from the provincial government."
On Friday, Schulz differed with that assessment, saying Sohi "was aware that this was happening."
Sharp said there would be no issues in Calgary in terms of councillor or city employee involvement.
The provincial government says it will allocate $58 million of the $187 million already announced by former premier Jason Kenney to address addiction and homelessness in Calgary as part of the task force initiatives.
Jodi Two Guns, executive director of social development with the Tsuut'ina Nation, and Siksika Coun. Reuben Breaker are part of the initiative, as is Patricia Jones, chief executive officer with the Calgary Homeless Foundation.
Calgary Fire Department Chief Steve Dongworth and Calgary Police Chief Mark Neufeld are also involved.
"There's many times where police are not the best response," Neufeld said.
"It's great to be able to see leaders at this level coming together to make sure that we co-ordinate the efforts all across that continuum, so that we can have the best outcomes for the people that are struggling with addictions."
Involuntary treatment on the table
Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Nicholas Milliken mentioned during the event that the funding in Calgary would also involve transforming correctional living units into treatment centres.
He was asked if any legislative changes were being planned that could potentially involve holding someone on an involuntary basis for treatment purposes.
"With regards to my mandate letter, I have been tasked with regards to putting together recommendations, which could include something along this topic," he said.
"What I would truly say, though, is, again, if we have situations where somebody is overdosing four times a day, we need to have some sort of compassionate intervention mechanism to ensure that he or she gets the treatment that they need or want."
Milliken was also asked by a reporter what the province would use to track outcomes of the initiative, and said the government would keep tabs on those who are involved in recovery, and cited the province's Alberta Substance Use Surveillance System website.
"We're using that in order to then be able to inform decisions as we move forward to ensure that the supports that we have are used in the most marginally beneficial way," Milliken said.
NDP municipal affairs critic Joe Ceci issued a press release in response to the formation of the task force, writing that what was required wasn't a report.
"The UCP has failed to address the affordability crisis and the crisis in our health-care system. Instead, they have piled on costs while cutting funding for housing and homelessness, and refused to address the opioid crisis," Ceci wrote.
"The UCP has already looked at the issue of mental health and addictions and housing in Calgary through their downtown working group. The report was released seven months ago with no action and no indication of what recommendations they plan to implement — if any. Now the UCP is once again looking at the same issues. This is an admission that they have no plan."
Alberta recorded its deadliest year on record for drug overdoses with more than 1,700 deaths in 2021. Relatively speaking, opioid deaths have been on the decline in recent months, with 168 recorded in February and 92 recorded in July.
The task force met for the first time Friday.
With files from Janet French and Scott Dippel