Province stalls creation of professional college for counselling therapists

The Alberta government has delayed proclamation of a regulation to create a professional college for counselling therapists, including those who work with children, youth and addictions treatment, but won't say why.  

'This would all come at no cost to government,' registrar says

Mike Ellis, associate minister of mental health and addictions, answers questions from media at the Alberta Legislature last Monday. (Nathan Gross/CBC News)

The Alberta government has delayed proclamation of a regulation to create a professional college for counselling therapists, including those who work with children, youth and addictions treatment, but won't say why. 

The proposed College of Counselling Therapy of Alberta (CCTA) would subject counsellors to professional standards, codes of ethics, and competencies in order to practise in Alberta, just as nurses, physicians, dentists and other professionals are regulated. The CCTA could investigate complaints and discipline members. 

The Association of Counselling Therapy of Alberta (ACTA) was set up after Bill 30, the Mental Health Services Protection, was passed by the previous NDP government in December 2018. 

ACTA's purpose was to lay the groundwork for the transition to the CCTA. Proclamation of the CCTA regulation by cabinet was expected to occur last summer. 

In September, ACTA received a letter from then-minister of health Tyler Shandro stating the creation of the CCTA was no longer a priority for the government.

ACTA registrar CEO Linda Sahli says the development was "surprising and shocking."

"We see this as critical right now and an absolutely integral part of the COVID response," Sahli said in an interview with CBC News. 

"We are currently experiencing a mental health and addiction crisis, so this need has never been, never ever been greater. And this would all come at no cost to government." 

The United Conservative government is ambiguous over its reasons for delaying the regulation.

Staff who speak for Mike Ellis, the associate minister of mental health and addictions, and Jason Copping, Alberta's current minister of health, deflected questions about the reason why. 

"No final decisions have been made with respect to ACTA or the CCTA," said Eric Engler, press secretary for Ellis. " As I have stated previously, as we move forward we will continue to review this file and consult with stakeholders, including the Association of Counselling Therapists of Alberta.

"I have nothing further to provide regarding the proclamation of the regulation at this time." 

Shandro, in his September letter, said the government had heard from First Nations leaders worried the CCTA would regulate traditional healing practices. Sahli said that isn't the case as those practices are exempted in the legislation. 

Sahli and members of the ACTA board met with Ellis on Nov. 30.  While Ellis made no commitments, he said he would consult with his colleagues on cabinet about next steps, Sahli said. 

In the meantime, ACTA has launched a letter writing campaign to encourage the government to take the next step. 

Interest high among counsellors

The delay comes as a blow to counselling therapists who have advocated for regulation for 18 years, Sahli said.

ACTA spent the last two years setting up standards of practices, codes of ethics, regulations and competencies for counsellors to enter practice. CCTA is to be self-funded so ACTA signed up more than 1,400 counsellors who pre-paid their first-year membership fee. 

Insurance companies cover counselling in the five Canadian provinces with regulated counselling therapy. Sahli said ACTA has already heard from Alberta Blue Cross and Sun Life. 

Sahli said Albertans need access to regulated, safe and affordable mental health and addictions services. Regulating counsellors holds them to professional standards and subjects them to a disciplinary process of those standards are breached. Sahli says the process ensures vulnerable clients can be safe. 

"Without regulation, mental health and addiction counsellors who have breached safety and conduct standards, for example, may continue to work with vulnerable populations in Alberta, such as children, with very little way, if any, for the public to know that they've had prior misconduct issues," she said. 

The Alberta government already held consultations on the CCTA. Sahli said the only organization that opposed the transition is the Ontario-based Canadian Addictions Counsellors Certification Federation (CACCF). 

CACCF certifies addictions counsellors but doesn't regulate them. Sahli says national organizations are not able to hold that role as professional colleges come under provincial jurisdiction. 

Last year, CACCF hired Wellington Advocacy to lobby the provincial government on the "regulatory framework for addictions counsellors" to ensure its members' views are considered "as part of any consideration of changes to the regulation of the industry." 

Nick Koolsbergen, CEO of Wellington Advocacy, was chief of staff to Jason Kenney when he was leader of the official opposition. Wellington Advocacy lobbied on behalf of the CACCF for seven months in 2020 into early 2021. 

CACCF did not respond to questions sent by CBC News asking what concerns it had about the CCTA regulation.

Marshall Smith, the chief of staff to Ellis and his predecessor Jason Luan, was president of the CACCF prior to working with the Government of Alberta. 

Engler said Smith has recused himself from discussions on the CCTA regulation to avoid a perceived conflict of interest. 

"This has been made clear with the (ethics) commissioner as well," Engler said.