Pure North alternative health program punted by CNRL months before getting $10M government grant

Pure North alternative health program punted by CNRL months before getting $10M government grant

Alberta Health gave Calgary oilman Allan Markin's private foundation a $10-million grant to expand an unproven alternative health program after Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., the company Markin co-founded, barred the foundation from directly providing the program to its employees.

The decision by CNRL to withdraw its support for Markin's Pure North S'Energy Foundation program also appears to have triggered his abrupt resignation as the company's chairman in April 2012.

Internal CNRL emails show the publicly traded oil and gas company's health and safety committee decided "it was not appropriate" for the Pure North program to be offered to the company's employees after an independent risk-management review "raised a number of issues" about it.

"Importantly, Mr. Markin is in a significant conflict of interest position because of his position as chairman of CNRL and his involvement as a central figure in Pure North," states a memo written by committee board chair Dr. Eldon Smith.

The memo was forwarded to all company employees by CNRL president Steve Laut in a March 22, 2012 email. Smith is the former dean of medicine at the University of Calgary.

Eleven days later, on April 2, 2012, at 2:01 p.m. -- one minute after the stock market closed in Toronto -- Markin notified CNRL staff worldwide in an email that he had resigned as CNRL chairman, and he referenced CNRL cutting off Pure North.

"The withdrawal of CNRL support for your participation in the Pure North program has not deterred my enthusiasm for the program," Markin wrote, adding that employees could still access the program outside of the company.

Laut, Smith, and Markin did not respond to interview requests from CBC News. In an interview last month, Pure North spokesperson Stephen Carter, speaking on Markin's behalf, said he did not know why CNRL withdrew support for the Pure North program. But he said the foundation still treats thousands of CNRL employees.

Aggressive lobbying campaign

A CBC News investigation has revealed that a few months after Markin resigned from CNRL, Pure North launched an aggressive lobbying campaign for funding from Alberta Health with an ultimate publicly stated goal of embedding Pure North's program in the provincial health system.

But although Pure North repeatedly cited the success of its CNRL program, it appears neither Markin nor Pure North disclosed the fact its program had been turfed by CNRL when the foundation sought, and received in December 2013, $10 million in funding from Alberta Health.

As CBC News has previously reported, Alberta Health granted the funding to Pure North against the advice of senior officials, who determined the Pure North program was not adequately supported by science, could not prove its health and economic claims, and may cause adverse effects in patients.

Alberta Health also changed the purpose of the funding from a research study to simply an expansion of an existing Pure North seniors program. That change, made six days before the grant agreement was signed, eliminated the need for ethical oversight of the program, which was ultimately offered to more than 7,300 seniors.

The program collected medical information from participants. Some experts say Pure North was effectively operating a human-subject study without any ethical oversight. Pure North has said it has collected data, including from CNRL employees, to accurately monitor its patients. Provision of the data to university researchers is simply a secondary use, the foundation said.

In its promotional material, Pure North states Markin created the foundation's program. It began as an employee health and wellness program and was eventually offered to thousands of CNRL employees. Markin personally funded the program and used his own airplanes to fly Pure North medical practitioners, including doctors, to remote CNRL work sites.

In addition to high doses of supplements, especially vitamin D, the Pure North program also offered CNRL employees the opportunity to have mercury dental fillings removed. Pure North has said it believes the fillings leach harmful mercury into the body.

Program "not appropriate" at CNRL  

Dr. Eldon Smith, in his memo, told CNRL employees the outside review was prompted by questions about the program and "because of potential cost implications going forward."

CNRL hired consulting firm AON Canada to "evaluate all aspects of the program." Because of issues raised in the consultant's report, the matter was referred to the company's health, safety and environment committee.

The committee reviewed the AON report, Smith said, "as well as documentation from national and international bodies involved in recommending and regulating health therapies. Material from Pure North was also thoroughly reviewed."

Smith said a special meeting of the committee was held on Jan. 30, 2012, and "while there was unanimous recognition of the deep concern Mr. Markin has for the health and welfare of CNRL employees, the committee concluded it was not appropriate for this program to continue to be offered to the health of employees."

CNRL replaced the Pure North program with a conventional employee health program.

After Markin resigned as CNRL chairman, his spokesperson, former Calgary Health CEO Jack Davis, told The Calgary Herald Markin decided to resign without notice because "he wanted to clear the decks and give management and the board of CNRL a chance to make the adjustments they feel they want to make with this departure and not be encumbered in any way by him."

Internal University of Alberta and CNRL documents reveal Markin sought support for his Pure North wellness program a few days before he resigned from CNRL.

Deputy health minister gave endorsement

U of A documents show Pure North sought the support of then-president Indira Samarasekera. Markin has donated more than $20 million to the university.

In a March 30, 2012 email, Pure North executive director Wendy Paramchuk tells Samarasekera that, "Allan has asked if you would consider documenting your view about Pure North and with your permission, he could use to send to CNRL employees to explain Pure North's position. He will need this letter today if possible."

There is nothing in the documents that show Samarasekera provided an endorsement.

But an internal CNRL document, sent to all employees, shows Markin received an endorsement from Alberta Health deputy minister Carl Amrhein, who was then provost at the U of A.

"The Canadian health system is not … sustainable in its current form …. Healthy living and prevention must become much more prominent, and Pure North S'Energy offers an outstanding program of education and support for both important issues," Amrhein's endorsement states.

In July 2014, Amrhein also wrote a letter of support for Pure North and Markin that lauded the research data — and financial support — Pure North had given his university's academics.

In October 2016, Amrhein, now deputy minister of health, signed a grant agreement with Pure North on behalf of his ministry. The grant is worth $4.2 million over several years and funds a nurse-practitioner-led, primary-care clinic in Calgary.

Internal Alberta Health documents show Amrhein participated in the Pure North program while he was deputy minister. An Alberta Health spokesperson said Amrhein fully disclosed his relationship with Pure North to the province's ethics commissioner when he assumed that role. Alberta Health declined any further comment for this story.

Ethics commissioner Marguerite Trussler told CBC News she questioned Amrhein about his signing of the October 2016 grant. She said Amrhein told her the decision was made elsewhere and he merely signed the agreement in his capacity as deputy minister, after Health Minister Sarah Hoffman had signed off.

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