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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has announced funding for dozens of spaces at private addictions treatment facilities, saying that addressing addictions is a priority even as the province trims spending during tough times.

Kenney told an audience at Fresh Start Recovery Centre in Calgary on Saturday the addictions crisis in recent years is being fuelled by economic despair, and that the funding follows a commitment his government made last year to fund 4,000 spaces in treatment centres over three years.

The announcement comes after Kenney said earlier this month that the province could close or relocate supervised drug consumption sites based on a panel report he says affirms concerns the sites are causing disruption in surrounding neighbourhoods.

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Fresh Start will receive up to $1.6 million each year to fund 30 of its 50 beds which translates to nearly 300 treatment spaces over three years. Kenney says only one bed is currently publicly funded.

Thorpe Recovery Centre in Lloydminister will receive $2.2 million for 36 beds creating 574 treatment spaces including some for medically assisted detox. Sunrise Healing Lodge in Calgary, which specializes in assisting Indigenous people with addictions, will be getting $520,000 for 10 beds.

Fresh Start executive director Stacey Petersen said at the announcement that the support for “abstinence-based treatment and long term recovery is unprecedented.”

“Over the course of my career in the addiction recovery fields spanning more than three decades, I have not witnessed this kind of government operational funding commitment,” Petersen said, noting the investment would save public money and would pay dividends to communities.

“Aside from the business case, the human case is priceless,” Petersen added.

Addictions and how to deal with them in Alberta have been controversial.

Kenney’s United Conservative government struck a panel last summer to look at the impact of supervised consumption sites on crime rates, social order, property values and businesses. But it is not considering harm reduction, establishing new sites, provincial funding or housing.

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Kenney said on Jan. 21 that he’s has seen the panel’s preliminary report, claiming it underscored the concerns about the negative impact on communities. He said there is a role for harm reduction sites, but the emphasis has to be on detox and treatment.

He also said the sites are now “more than injections … they’re just illegal drug sites.”

Lethbridge NDP legislature member Shannon Phillips has said closing the site in her city would be devastating, and that people would die.

Kenney said that the province is fortunate to have a wide array of treatment facilities operated by dozens of agencies “with tremendous expertise in treating addiction.” He thanked them for their dedication, even when he said that in some cases they had to fundraise over 90 per cent of their budgets.

“I believe Albertans know even in tough times this really is critical that we give people a lifeline to recovery to a bright future,” Kenney said.

The funding announcements follow another the province made in December to fund 28 beds at the Poundmaker’s Lodge Treatment Centres near Edmonton for Indigenous Albertans.

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Teressa Krueckl, chief executive officer of Thorpe Recovery Centre, told the audience on Saturday that it would be an understatement to call the last eight years an “absolute crisis” and there many times they discussed having to close.

“We knew there was a crisis. We needed somebody to listen and today’s the day,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2020.

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