One of Canada’s leading experts on drug addiction says British Columbia’s provincial government asked him to delete a crucial database in an attempt to censor criticism of the province’s homeless policies. The incident appears to fit within a larger, nationwide campaign to silence experts who believe that, when it comes to homelessness and drugs, Canadian policy-makers are on the wrong track.
Dr. Julian Somers is a clinical psychologist and distinguished professor at Simon Fraser University, where he directs the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction.
In 2004, Somers established the “Inter-Ministry Evaluation Database” (IMED), which linked data about vulnerable populations across various B.C. ministries — for example: days spent in hospital, detentions and criminal convictions, medications, and income assistance. This helped create detailed pictures of people’s lives, allowing researchers to more accurately measure the impacts of government policies.
Over the years, the database was used in over 30 provincial reports, 60 peer-reviewed publications and several graduate theses.
Somers then used the IMED for his own $20-million research project into anti-poverty programs in Vancouver. The project randomly divided 497 participants into three groups, giving each a different support program. Using the IMED to follow their lives over five years, it concluded that B.C.’s standard approach to homelessness was ineffective.
Professor says the B.C. provincial government is censoring him
Armed with his study results, Somers worked with 14 non-profits to call for reforms
to B.C.’s drug and homeless policies. In late February 2021, he presented his findings to several provincial deputy ministers.
A week later, the provincial government sent him a letter
demanding that he destroy the IMED w
The official explanation was that the database was set to be retired at the end of the month, and that the government was creating its own inter-ministry database that would be broader (i.e. include family and income data) and be more efficient to operate.
Somers found the explanation implausible, and still does.He says there was no way to reconstruct the IMED’s core data in the new government project. Many people had consented to having their data used only because they participated in projects specifically related to the IMED, such as Somer’s aforementioned homeless study. That consent was non-transferrable.
The abrupt timing also troubled him, especially because the B.C. Ministry of Health had just renewed its commitment to the IMED for another year.
Somers refused to comply.
He alleges that the government responded by simply prohibiting him from updating or analyzing the IMED, or using it for new projects, without the province’s written permission. Dr. Somers says this effectively rendered the database worthless.
Somers believes that in the nearly two years since, he has been “completely frozen out” by the B.C. government. He also alleges that he has been subject to an intimidation campaign by safe supply advocates.
He provided a copy of a July 2022 email from the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use
, which lobbies for safe supply, showing that they lobbied for a conference to disinvite him from a speaking engagement.
The BCCSU did not respond to a request for comment.
“This government is actively hostile to the existence of the data, so I’ve completely given up. The work I was doing is no longer viable,” he says.
In B.C., as in much of Canada, the popular approach is to herd homeless people into housing where most, if not all, residents are fresh off the streets, creating a critical mass of trauma and addiction. These residents are then given a “safe supply” of free drugs and provided few resources for recovery and social reintegration.
Somers’ study showed that if you house homeless people in a way that disperses them into normal society, and then prioritize rehabilitation, employment and social reintegration, you see a 70 per cent reduction in crimes committed and a 50 per cent reduction in medical emergencies, all without spending more money.
The study confirmed the common-sense notion that it’s better to empower people to get back on their feet, rather than foster dependency through easy access to free drugs.