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Alta. mental health and addiction minister criticized for sharing 'false' info on homelessness

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A now-deleted tweet shared by Alberta's mental health and addiction minister's official account has some saying he was promoting "false information."

Sunday morning, Minister Nicholas Milliken’s account tweeted an article written by the British tabloid DailyMail about a woman experiencing homelessness in Portland who reportedly "bragged about the perks of living on the streets."

The tweet said in quotations, "Portland homeless woman boasts about how she is fed three meals a day by woke city and can stay in her tent all day and do drugs."

A now-deleted tweet shared from Alberta Mental Health and Addiction Minister Nicholas Milliken on Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023.

Lorian Hardcastle, a University of Calgary associate law professor specializing in health policy, characterized the tweet by the minister's account as "highly problematic," suggesting a potential misunderstanding of addiction and homelessness.

"I don't think that this tweet was constructive at all," Hardcastle said, adding he should have provided context on whether it was his opinion or for why he was sharing it.

"He should be tweeting about policy solutions to these issues and having empathy for people struggling with addictions and not judgemental comments about how their lives are easy," she said.

Colin Aitchison, the minister's press secretary, confirmed to CTV News Edmonton in a statement that the tweet was shared from Milliken's account and quoted "a headline from an article."

"When it came to our attention that this was being misrepresented as his opinion rather than the sharing of the headline from the article, the tweet was taken down," Aitchison said.

CTV News Edmonton asked who wrote the tweet and what the intention behind sharing it was but has yet to receive a response.

Along with the statement, Aitchison highlighted how the province has created the Digital Overdose Response System (DORS) app and, in October, invested $124 million in new funding to expand Alberta's response to the addictions crisis.

PUBLIC OFFICIALS HAVE DUTY TO EDUCATE: HARDCASTLE

As a cabinet minister, Hardcastle says Milliken is responsible for providing balanced and informed perspectives to help educate or shape discussions on issues.

"I don't think the education that we want for the public around these issues is that it's convenient or easy to struggle with addiction or homelessness," Hardcastle explained. "When in fact, these are some of our most vulnerable citizens and those that need protection from the government."

Edmonton Coun. Andrew Knack agreed with Hardcastle, adding that he's often shared articles he agrees or disagrees with online. The key for him is to provide context.

"If the minister was sharing that article for information to suggest, well, we don't want that to happen here, or we don't want that to continue here, I would then follow up that tweet with saying, here's what I am doing as minister to try and resolve this because I have the authority to actually make a difference," Knack said.

Knack, who represents Ward Nakota Isga, questioned the point in sharing an article about the U.S., where mental health and addiction funding authorities differ.

In Canada, those issues fall within the authorities of the provincial government, whereas in the U.S., mental health and addictions are handled by municipalities, Knack says.

"This continues to perpetuate the false information that this is actually up to the city's themselves to resolve," he added. "Of course, we are going to work on it… but we need to work together. We just need to make sure that everyone is involved."

QUESTIONS OF BIAS

While Knack still "has hope" the social issues task forces Milliken heads in both Calgary and Edmonton will come to evidence-based conclusions, Hardcastle says the minister's tweets aggravate an existing optics problem.

Hardcastle says many have been concerned for years that Alberta's UCP-led government approach to mental health and addictions was primarily "politically driven."

"Previously, this government's approach was concerning from a policy perspective," she said, citing reaction to the province's criticized supervised consumption site stance.

According to her, many have felt the UCP's approach tended to "skew" more towards recovery-based approaches rather than a wider spectrum of harm reduction options.

"But now, this sort of adds to that and makes one wonder if those policy choices are driven by a misunderstanding of addictions and the people who struggled with them," Hardcastle said.

"This suggests a deeper problem with actual bias against these individuals and a complete misunderstanding around the nature of addiction and homelessness."

On social media, the province's health critic questioned if tabloid articles are the evidence "the UCP use to justify their policies."

"Is this the level of thought and consideration he plans to bring to the task force on social issues," asked David Shepherd, Opposition MLA for Edmonton - City Centre. 

Shannon Phillips, Opposition finance critic and Lethbridge West MLA, said the tweet represented "conduct unbecoming of a Minister."

On Twitter, Brent Colman, who identified himself as a recovered addict, asked if the minister would issue an official retraction and apology for his "horrible and ghoulish stance."

As Milliken's account is used for professional outreach, Hardcastle says he must "treat it as such."

"He should say things he would only say in a professional setting," she added. "Knowing that he does have this role."

"If these are his true views, then I suppose that it's important that Albertans know this and can hold the premier's feet to the fire that perhaps he isn't the appropriate person for this portfolio."

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Kyra Markov 

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