The British Columbia Government ordered Simon Fraser University to destroy an internationally unique database addressing addiction, crime, and homelessness in BC. In response to recent media attention the BC government has issued a series of false and inaccurate statements. The government’s Public Affairs branch wrote that the statements are “attributable to the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General”. The statements are listed below followed by relevant facts.
Provincial Government Statements:
This statement is correct.
The order to destroy the database was sent 7 days after Dr. Somers made a crucial presentation to provincial Deputy Ministers. The presentation showed that the IMED had been the basis for peer-reviewed publications detailing gaps in services addressing addiction and homelessness, and had also been used to compare different ways of intervening. One study featuring the IMED was designed with people who experienced homelessness and mental illness, and had a budget of about $30M to implement and evaluate approaches that are not currently available in BC. Participants gave their consent for SFU to receive their data through the IMED so that the results could be used to gain knowledge and improve services for other people.
In SFU’s meetings with representatives of the Data Innovation Program we learned that it was not possible to use the DIP to recreate our established database. For starters we learned that Corrections data were not even in the DIP (Corrections data form the core of the IMED, to which all other data are linked). We also learned that the DIP is not capable of providing data about an individual who has given their consent. These fundamental impediments were relayed to the IMED Chair, who refused to acknowledge their importance and who reiterated that the database should be destroyed.
Since 2004 the inter-ministry evaluation database (IMED) has been continuously renewed and expanded. In the fall of 2020 the IMED steering committee and SFU collaborated on a research proposal and agreed that the database would be again renewed and expanded if the proposal was funded. The project was funded and in February 2021 the Ministry of Health renewed their information sharing agreement with SFU for another term. If there had been any plans to “transition” the IMED after nearly 20 years then there would certainly have been some correspondence about this. Instead the evidence shows that routine renewal was underway and that the order to destroy data was given abruptly and without concern for impacts on the IMED’s funded research activities, doctoral research in progress, etc.
This statement indicates that the Province regards itself as the only party with an ownership interest in the IMED. But it is important to consider the rights of people who’s experiences are represented in the IMED and who gave SFU their consent to learn from their experiences. It is important to consider the interests of other people who experience addiction and homelessness and who are the intended beneficiaries of research using the IMED. It is also necessary to consider the responsibilities of researchers, who are obligated to retain data so that they are available to other researchers and in case it is necessary to reanalyse published findings. The public and taxpayers also have an interest in the IMED, which brings transparency and accountability to an area of public spending that has been strongly criticized for a lack of information (e.g., BC Auditor General, 2016; Ernst & Young, 2022). Not only has the Province refused to acknowledge these interests, it refused to even discuss them.
After 8 months of civil disobedience the Province authorized SFU to retain existing data under extremely narrow rules of use for a limited period. They refused to add data necessary for our funded research as they had promised.
As noted above, the DIP is incapable of replicating the IMED. The fact that Corrections data were not even in the IMED when the destruction order was issued illustrates that the Province’s decision was impulsive. Given that the DIP was literally being created at the time, why wouldn’t the Province ask SFU to recreate the IMED database using the DIP and show that it’s feasible to do so before we destroy the IMED? Instead, they ordered us to destroy the database with no possibility of recreating it in either the short OR long term.
Numerous meetings took place and a body of email correspondence confirms that basic problems were identified immediately. On April 14 2021 Dr. Somers sent the following to the Chair of the IMED Steering Committee:
“We’ve had a few meetings now with Brittany and her colleagues at DIP. Our discussions have identified some ways in which the DIP may not be a viable source of data for analyses that we’ve completed under the IMRI. For example, analyses that involve clients’ consent to access data appear not to be viable under the DIP. As you know client consent has been a component of previous analyses and is part of the methodology for further research.”
This statement makes no sense. Dr. Somers presentation to Deputy Ministers showed them that the IMED revealed that congregate housing (including SROs) caused the perpetuation of crime and medical emergencies among people experiencing addictions and mental illness. Subsequent audits reveal that at the time of Dr. Somers presentation the Province was in the process of a massive expansion of funding to SRO’s and for building new congregate developments. If the government truly wanted to know how their policies were performing they would have embraced the IMED as the only established source of detailed information about the effectiveness of government investments. Instead, one week after Dr. Somers’ presentation the government sent an out-of-the-blue demand to immediately destroy the IMED.
Is the general public really supposed to believe that the Province was “looking forward to collaborating with Dr. Somers”? If so they’ve got a funny way of showing it.