What’s wrong with giving wealthy Albertans from the oil industry privileged access to the halls of power and influencing power over the province’s universities? Well, the still developing case of Calgary’s Pure North S’Energy Foundation and its subsidiary Precision Health is a perfect example of what that sort of power can buy and its potential damage to the public interest in Alberta.
The wealthy oil man in question here is Allan Markin, founder and former chairman of Canadian Natural Resources Ltd (CNRL) and part owner of the Calgary Flames. In 2007, while still chairman of CNRL, Markin started up Pure North, a private health foundation that promotes preventive health treatments such as vitamins and minerals, including a particular reliance on large doses of vitamin D (often beyond the upper safe intake limit identified by Health Canada). Their focus is providing these therapies to vulnerable populations including seniors, the homeless, and people with addictions. According to numerous experts and former Alberta Health officials quoted in an extensive 2016 CBC investigation by Charles Rusnell and Jennie Russell, there is no peer-reviewed evidence that the therapies actually yield positive health outcomes, and the ultra-high vitamin doses may actually put patients at risk.
Notwithstanding the lack of evidence and research, the Pure North program was included for years as part of the benefit plan for CNRL employees—a practice that CNRL put an end to in 2012, two months before Markin resigned as chairman, after its health and safety committee identified that their endorsement of the program raised a number of risk-management issues.
Not deterred by his own company’s rejection of his program, Markin embarked on an intense lobbying campaign to have Alberta Health integrate the Pure North program into the province’s public health system. This lobbying campaign was strongly supported by the University of Alberta Provost and Vice President (Academic) Carl Amrhein. It is important to point out here that during Amrhein’s tenure at the U of A, Markin donated millions of dollars to the institution, including a $3 million gift (matched by CNRL) to fund the Markin/CNRL Natural Resources Engineering Facility in 2004. It’s also worth noting that Amrhein, who actually became a participant in the Pure North program, who went on in 2015 to become Deputy Minister of Alberta Health after a short stint as Official Administrator of Alberta Health Services.
Markin’s lobbying paid off, and in 2013 Alberta Health rushed through a $10 million grant for expanding their ongoing work with seniors. The grant was approved despite the strong objections of numerous senior officials at Alberta Health about the unproven techniques, the lack of scientific evidence, and the potential risks of the treatment to the patients. It was also re-structured at the last minute as to avoid any research ethics screening or oversight. The whole process highlights the degree to which as late as 2013 the Alberta government would always find a way to say yes to even the most absurd proposals put before them by a wealthy Calgary oil man. Especially one whose “foundation” is chaired by the likes of Jack Davis, former president and CEO of the Calgary Health Region and persistent wealthy lobbyist for corporate interests. The Pure North board also includes former U of A Dean of Engineering David Lynch, and their official spokesperson is former Alison Redford Chief of Staff Stephen Carter.
This spring it was revealed that in 2016 Pure North was granted a further $4.2 million as part of a larger pilot study supporting nurse practitioners in primary care clinics servicing vulnerable populations. This grant was provided despite the previous mountain of paperwork at Alberta Health outlining the risks and unproven nature of Pure North’s methods, and the fact that absolutely no evidence or documentation had been produced to show that the previous $10 million grant actually achieved any of the health outcomes or cost-savings that had been proposed. Especially alarming is the fact that the contract with Pure North for the $4.2 million grant was signed on behalf of the government by none other than Deputy Minister Carl Amrhein, who had at one point lobbied for Pure North and is an active participant in their program.
The Alberta Health Minister has now cancelled the remaining funding (over $3 million) to Pure North. It’s critical that the auditor general review how the grant was approved in the first place, and that the ethics commissioner investigate the role played by Carl Amrhein in the whole mess. Even that is not enough. Albertans deserve to know just how many programs, businesses, initiatives, and organizations have been given, or are still receiving funds because of the political and bureaucratic connections and the economic and political power of the individuals behind them rather than their own merit. Albertans also need to have faith in the integrity of their institutions of higher learning, which means knowing beyond the shadow of a doubt that questionable schemes are not receiving implicit academic endorsement simply because of the donation history of their proponents.
The Pure North case presents an important opportunity to expose and end the historically cozy relationship between wealthy Albertans, the government, and our province’s universities; an opportunity to opt for the public interest over the private interests of a few. Let’s hope they act on it.