Withholding overdose numbers pointless manoeuvre


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If it is a coverup, it’s one of the clumsiest this government has authored.

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If it is a coverup, it’s one of the clumsiest this government has authored.

Last week, diligent work by the Free Press revealed the Progressive Conservative government of Manitoba was attempting to withhold data on the total number of fatal drug overdoses in the province last year. This data is critically important as an objective measurement of a key threat to public health, but also as a foundational element in the public debate over government responses to mental health and addictions.

It’s also information the Free Press has regularly accessed to drive coverage of this important issue.

So, imagine the astonishment when the Free Press asked the Manitoba Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (the go-to source for overdose data) to provide updated numbers for 2022. Reporters had previously accessed the data for the first half of 2022, and had every reason to believe figures were now available for the whole year.

For the first time, the chief medical officer referred the Free Press to the department of mental health and community wellness for updates — without explaining why the protocol had changed. In turn, departmental communications staff declined to provide updated figures.

They claimed the province was not refusing the request, but it “does not provide or report on preliminary information as part of this reporting.”

Tidy enough explanation, except for one problem: that’s exactly what the chief medical officer had been doing.

It’s not just media requests that are being denied. Manitoba is the only province that has failed to provide overdose data to the Public Health Agency of Canada, which regularly posts national figures.

Eventually, the Free Press turned to advocacy organization Moms Stop the Harm, a national body that lobbies government for better substance abuse and mental health supports. The group had already received Manitoba overdose figures from the chief medial officer — up to the end of November 2022.

Those figures show the overdose problem (which skyrocketed in lock-step with the COVID-19 pandemic) is showing no signs of abatement. Through the end of November, there had been 377 confirmed overdoses, more than in all of 2020 (371) and well within striking distance of the total for 2021 (424).

If the information was provided by the chief medical officer to third-party advocacy groups, why wouldn’t government share it with the media?

Critics have suggested it’s a coverup, and when you consider the political context, there is some evidence to support the allegation.

On Tuesday, the day before the Free Press requested the data, Premier Heather Stefanson tabled the last Tory budget before she is obligated by provincial law to hold a general election. Although Stefanson could call a vote anytime, it must take place no later than Oct. 3, with the campaign starting, at the latest, just after Labour Day.

In the budget, the Stefanson government pledged $9.4 million for 1,000 new addictions treatment spaces and services.

However, to determine whether that funding promise is an adequate response to a public health crisis, one would certainly need to know the magnitude of the problem it was trying to address (via data on the number of people who continue to die from overdoses).

Also part of the political context of this issue is Manitoba’s aversion to supervised drug consumption sites, an internationally recognized strategy for preventing overdoses and saving lives.

Public health and addictions experts have argued Manitoba’s current support programs are inadequate and the proof of that allegation is found — wait for it — in the updated overdose data from the chief medical officer.

This is hardly the PC government’s first attempt to corrupt the flow of public information.

During the pandemic, public health officials constantly changed reporting protocols and definitions, often without adequate explanation, to make it harder to track the deadly consequences of COVID-19. At other times, politicians and political operatives exerted pressure on the health-care system and regional health authorities to slow the release of information on issues such as emergency room wait times.

The most frustrating aspect of this most recent attempt is its pointlessness.

The Tories have forgotten a tenet of high-level politics: the only thing worse than having failed at something is being caught trying to cover up that failure.

There is no truly effective way to conceal the government’s failures when it comes to mental health and addictions. The data government is currently withholding will eventually make its way into the public domain, if not through third-party advocacy groups then via the federal PHAC.

It seems in its rush to avoid some short-term grief, this government appears content to invite longer and much deeper political pain down the road.

The PC government has lost almost all its credibility on health care through austere funding policies and ham-handed efforts at restructuring Winnipeg’s hospital system.

Combine those problems with a systemic failure to address an epidemic of drug overdoses and you can at least see why the Tories may be motivated to keep certain details under wraps.

In doing so, however, they have forgotten a tenet of high-level politics: the only thing worse than having failed at something is being caught trying to cover up that failure.


Dan Lett

Dan Lett

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.


Updated on Monday, March 13, 2023 7:57 AM CDT: Corrects reference to last week

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