FOIP reveals multiple deaths at drug treatment facilities in Alberta as UCP moves towards forced treatment

Multiple people have died in drug treatment and addiction recovery centres in Alberta, a fact the government of Alberta refused to disclose and took a freedom of information request to reveal. 

At least three people died in Albertan treatment facilities between 2016 and 2021, according to a freedom of information request filed with Alberta Health Services. That number could be much higher however as the document is heavily redacted and there are 21 more entries.

Ray Corbiere is the father of Joshua, who died in August 2021 at Thorpe Recovery Centre of a drug overdose from buprenorphine a day after being admitted. He told us about the pain of losing a loved one who was supposed to be in safe hands.  

“No one should ever die at a recovery centre. It doesn’t make sense. Not a safe place at all,” said Corbiere.  

“I don’t even know if in Joshua’s situation if they gave him Narcan. If they even had it. In the report I read the [licensed practical nurse] cannot remember if she was asked to give Narcan by the paramedics when she made the 911 call. That hurts me bigtime, there’s a huge possibility my son could still be alive if they gave it to him. We’ll never know, right. That in itself is heartbreaking.”

The material provided in response to our request includes another incident report that says that an anonymized treatment facility ordered Narcan after a critical incident and also sought to provide training to staff to recognize signs and symptoms of overdose. This critical incident took place in a PCHAD unit, a treatment facility where parents can involuntarily send their children for treatment.

“The fact that staff aren’t adequately trained, able to recognize certain signs of overdose that hurts. But incompetence doesn’t bring my son back. It’s very difficult. Our whole family, it’s thrown us all for a huge loop. I can’t work. It’s hard for me to concentrate,” said Corbiere. 

The Alberta government under the United Conservative Party has spearheaded the creation of the “Alberta Model” of dealing with the drug poisoning crisis. This approach prioritizes talking about investing in twelve-step abstinence based treatment programs while simultaneously reducing or closing harm reduction programs, openly slagging solutions like safe supply and bragging about death counts that are a few percentage points under the peaks of 2021. 

A recent scoop from Alanna Smith of the Globe and Mail also revealed that the government is actively contemplating forced treatment for people who use drugs. Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis confirmed the reporting in a recent press conference.

“Forcing people into treatment is not the answer,” said Corbiere. “The government right now is playing politics and trying to buy votes and that’s disgusting to me. That’s a political game. How are you going to force someone to do what they don’t want to do?”

Screenshot of Danielle Smith addressing the Alberta Recovery Conference in Calgary on February 21, 2023. 

Not only do people die and suffer critical incidents at these treatment facilities but multiple studies show that after forced treatment there is an increased risk of death and overdose for people who use drugs. A Swedish study published in 2022 found that the risk of dying immediately after discharge from compulsory care is very high, especially for younger clients. A 2019 study looking at people who underwent forced drug treatment in Mexico found that, “Overall, involuntary drug treatment, as other type of forced abstinence, reduces drug tolerance putting people who inject drugs at risk of non-fatal overdose.” 

Of the 24 critical incidents, overdoses or deaths at treatment facilities in the released documents there are three deaths, three on-site stabilizations, and one hospitalization—and then 17 entries that are fully redacted. All of these incidents took place between 2016 and 2021. 

The highest levels of government or AHS were also aware of at least two of these incidents. The FOIP officer responsible for processing the FOIP request used the ‘advice from officials’ exemption to redact information twice. This exception is only granted when disclosure could reveal advice, proposals, recommendations, analyses or policy options developed by or for a public body or a member of cabinet or their staff. Both times this exception was used to redact passages describing additional actions or recommendations made to prevent the incident from happening again.

Alberta Addiction Service Providers, an umbrella group for treatment centers, does not have any way to contact them on their website though it regularly links to government of Alberta press releases on the media section of its site. Thorpe Recovery Centre did not respond to emailed questions. 

We asked the government of Alberta to confirm how many people have died in drug treatment facilities, what training drug treatment staff are required to have, whether drug treatment facilities are required to stock Narcan, and whether the government keeps track of drug poisoning deaths after completing treatment. The government of Alberta did not respond to our questions. 

Ray Corbiere thinks the public should know about deaths in treatment facilities. 

“The general public should know. We should have the right to know whether our children and our loved ones are going to be in a safe place and feel comfortable that they are going to beat this,” said Corbiere.

“He wanted to get off of it so bad. When he left the house he was crying,” said Corbiere. “I tried to support my son as best I could. We never thought anything in our wildest dreams like this would happen when we tried to get help.”