Allan Markin, a retired oil patch executive and one of Alberta’s most prominent philanthropists, shines a flashlight into Jean Pronovost’s mouth. The two men are at a clinic operating out of a former Quality Inn on Calgary’s Macleod Trail that is run by Pure North S’Energy Foundation, which Markin funds.
Minutes earlier Markin and Pronovost had struck up a conversation and found they both had more than a passing interest in hockey. Over the course of two decades, starting in the 1960s, Pronovost had played for the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Washington Capitals, and the Flames (when they were in Atlanta) while Markin remains part-owner of the Calgary Flames. It was after a brief conversation about Pronovost’s career that Markin asks to look into the hockey veteran’s gullet. “No, no, no. Those have got to come out. Immediately,” the former chairman of Canadian Natural Resources says.
Markin believes mercury amalgam fillings are a toxic source of a host of ailments. He excuses himself and returns with Pronovost’s file, telling him that, if he can get to a dental clinic that Pure North runs in downtown Calgary, his mercury fillings can come out right away. Then, as the Pure North team sets Pronovost up with a battery of vitamin supplements, Markin turns to the greater concern he has with Pronovost’s health—one that has transformed Markin from oilman into arguably Canada’s wealthiest and most unorthodox health care renegade. Shaking his head, Markin—who, it should be noted, has no formal medical training—expresses concern about Pronovost’s low vitamin-D level, which was revealed in his blood work.
In Markin’s view, Canadians and their health care system are in peril because of the chronic underconsumption of vitamin D, often referred to as the sunshine vitamin because it’s produced in response to the sun’s UVB exposure. “Every cell in the body needs vitamin D and for most of the year, there’s no way [Canadians] can get enough of it from the sun,” he says. Drawing on widespread, albeit contentious, research, he is convinced the vitamin plays a critical role in offsetting a raft of often deadly, always costly, non-communicable diseases, in addition to promoting overall well-being.
There are a lot of people who, to varying degrees, share Markin’s view on vitamin D, and they run the gamut from respected academics to alternative health care gurus. But none have the financial resources at their disposal, or have been as keen to deploy them, as Markin, whose net worth Canadian Business magazine estimates is more than $600 million. In just the last few years Markin has funnelled an astonishing $200 million into his not-for-profit Pure North S’Energy Foundation, which bills itself as Canada’s largest prevention-focused health care organization. From its top-floor offices in downtown Calgary, the 165-employee foundation operates 40 private clinics across the province, providing nutritional supplements, lifestyle counselling, blood tests and dental care. At last count, Pure North has worked with 40,000 people in Alberta.
But it’s Markin’s crusade to have Health Canada dramatically increase its standard recommended daily intake level of vitamin D—from between 400 to 800 international units (IU) to between 6,000 and 9,000 IU and even as high as 20,000 IU, in some cases—that has brought him national attention. Starting earlier this year, Markin began financing a cross-country awareness campaign, including full-page ads in newspapers. In January, he travelled to Ottawa to lobby officials from Health Canada and the offices of the Prime Minister, the minister of health, and the leader of the Opposition. In March, Markin addressed the House of Commons standing committee on health with his message. “If we can just get Canadians’ vitamin D levels up, we could save $72 billion over the next five years,” he says. “It’s a bargain.”
For Markin, who spent his career in the oil patch focused on the bottom line, the equation is simple—if Canadians follow his advice, he believes close to 40,000 premature deaths could be avoided annually and the health care system saved $14.4 billion. As someone with incredible resources, he has set out to alter Canadian public health care policy. Is he a well-heeled, misguided eccentric? Or is he right?
Markin’s vast oil wealth traces back to the 1980s when he was running Poco Petroleum and met a young lawyer named Murray Edwards, who is today Canada’s 24th richest person with a net worth of $2.5 billion. Together the two men transformed Canadian Natural Resources (CNRL) from a smudge on the Alberta petroleum landscape into the country’s largest heavy oil producer and second-largest independent natural gas company. By the time Edwards replaced Markin as chairman in the spring of 2012, CNRL was a behemoth with 8,000 employees and revenue of $14.6 billion. Despite rumours of a contentious split, Markin speaks of Edwards tenderly: “He’s as smart as they come,” he says. “For 20 years we spoke with each other at the end of every day. It was like a marriage.”
It was while at CNRL that the building blocks were laid for Markin’s interest in preventative medicine. He observed that productivity was yoked to employee wellness and that the cold, remote oil patch was a notoriously inhospitable work environment. Studies routinely showed that workers drew on counselling services offered by oil companies at a higher rate than other sectors. And so Markin helped develop a health care program for CNRL that came to be regarded as the gold standard in the industry, with lifestyle counselling, nutritional support and comprehensive testing meant to detect health problems early on.
While he was hitting his stride in the oil patch, on a personal level Markin admits his own health was eroding. He winces as he recollects the mysterious pounding headaches that had become a routine part of his day. “Nothing seemed to work so I started taking handfuls of Tylenol and washing them down with scotch. Even that didn’t help much.” Drawing on his observations of CNRL’s employee-wellness program and his own research, Markin became convinced that his headaches were due to his two-dozen mercury fillings and vitamin D deficiency. He had the fillings replaced and upped his vitamin D intake well past the recommended daily allowance. His headaches subsided and he says his sense of general well-being increased significantly.
Whether or not those measures genuinely improved Markin’s health can’t be said for certain. The point is, he believed they did, and wanted to share his experience with others. In 2006 Markin established the Pure North S’Energy Foundation to provide nutritional counselling, dental care and supplements to vulnerable populations, such as low-income seniors, the homeless and people living in remote communities. Its purpose was simple: preventive intervention. Or, as Markin likes to say, “To help people feel better and live longer.”
Pure North isn’t Markin’s only philanthropic venture, with charities and institutions across the province having benefited from his largesse. The donor profile at Calgary’s St. Mary’s University, to which he’s given $20 million, states: “It would difficult to find a citizen of Calgary, or indeed, Alberta, who has not directly benefited from Dr. Markin’s charitable support.” (The honoriﬁc reﬂects honorary doctorates of law he received from three universities.) He’s given tens of millions to programs to promote healthy eating among school children, addiction treatment facilities, education programs and has even assisted a Tibetan resettlement program that aims to bring 1,000 Tibetans to Canada (at no cost to taxpayers). Currently, he supplies the Calgary contingent of Tibetans with the full Pure North program as well as providing housing for several of them at his boyhood home in Bowness, a neighbourhood in Calgary’s west end.
But Pure North is by far the largest recipient of Markin’s charity dollars. In 2013 alone, he donated $50 million to it, with most of the money going to provide Pure North’s vitamin supplements and counselling services free of charge to those who can’t afford them, and on a cost-recovery basis for those who can. Pure North offers a vehicle to promote broader adoption of Markin’s beliefs—that toxins and poor nutrition are causing widespread health problems and that those problems are crippling the Canadian health care system.
Markin’s ongoing Vitamin-D campaign boils down to what he and many others see as a five-year old academic flub. In 2010 the Institute of Medicine in the U.S., the health division of the National Academies of Science, released a study jointly commissioned by the U.S. and Canadian governments that set out dietary guidelines for vitamin D. Health Canada’s current recommendation that Canadian children and adults consume between 600 and 800 IU of vitamin D—and no more than 4,000 IU—stems from that report. But critics argue the institute made a statistical error in its interpretation of existing vitamin D studies. Last year, Paul Veugelers, a professor in the school of public health at the University of Alberta, wrote an analysis explaining the error and stating that “the public health and clinical implications of the miscalculated [recommended daily allowance] for vitamin D are serious.” In essence, criticism of Health Canada’s guidelines comes down to body mass. As it stands, the recommendations for vitamin D intake are the same for a slight, nine-year-old girl as they are for a 60-year-old, obese man.
Against the backdrop of the debate over guidelines is an expanding body of research suggesting the value of vitamin D goes beyond our traditional understanding of its importance to skeletal health—that it may have the capacity to reduce cancer cell growth, may play a role in controlling infection, offset cardiovascular disease, as well as reduce the likelihood of developing autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes.
Or not. The range of dissent on the subject is dizzying. Where the Harvard Public Health Review goes on record as saying that “certain cancers and immune dysfunctions are strongly associated with vitamin D deficiency,” a recent paper from researchers at the University of Edinburgh questioned even long-held assertions about the vitamin’s role in maintaining bone-mineral density. For researchers like Dr. David Hanley at the University of Calgary, who is currently conducting a clinical trial of vitamin D with a grant from Markin’s Pure North Foundation, more research is needed. For others, like Timothy Caulfield, a professor of health law and science policy at the University of Alberta, and author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?, a recent book debunking celebrity health advice, the debate over vitamin D has left the realm of science altogether. “It’s fascinating. Vitamin D is like a religion,” he says of the palaver. “Evidence doesn’t seem to matter.” Caulfield is equally skeptical about the fiscal impact on our health care system: “There is absolutely no way that someone can make a definitive statement about the health economic impact of vitamin D supplementation. People don’t even agree if supplementation is required for the general population.”
None of this dissuades Allan Markin. He puts his faith in academics like Reinhold Vieth, a professor of nutritional science, laboratory medicine and pathobiology at the University of Toronto and a clinical biochemist at Mount Sinai. Vieth maintains that vitamin D affects every system in the human body and enhances the body’s ability to protect against disease.
More than that is the evidence Markin has witnessed first-hand: “Pure North does longitudinal studies,” where medical data is gathered from individuals over a period of time. “I’ve seen with my own eyes the difference vitamin D makes in people’s lives.”
While the medical jury is still clearly out on vitamin D, Markin continues to devote vast financial resources to the cause. When he appeared before the House standing committee on health in March—where he told MPs that Health Canada was committing an “injustice” by keeping its recommended daily levels so low—he had at least one backer in the room. Liberal MP Hedy Fry, a member of the committee, a physician and the former head of the B.C. Medical Association, says the health agency should overhaul its dietary recommendations. She points to an increase among Aboriginal children of cases of rickets—a disease that leaves bones weakened and prone to deformity—with a rate of the disorder four to five times higher than the national average, and says the dietary shift away from cold-water fish—which is rich in vitamin D—to a more typical Western fare is to blame. (Canada had virtually eradicated rickets at one point, after the introduction of vitamin-D-fortiﬁed dairy products in the 1930s.) But unlike the U.S., where Americans can obtain supplements with up to 7,000 IUs of vitamin D over the counter, Health Canada requires a prescription for anything containing more than 1,000 IUs. “Health Canada no longer seems to be guided by scientific or evolving new evidence,” she says.
So far Health Canada has given no indication it will revisit its vitamin D guidelines. It’s an open question as to where this leaves Canada’s wealthiest health care crusader and his Pure North S’Energy Foundation. The collapse in oil prices has shaken the Alberta economy. Any hope he once had that the provincial government might contribute to his preventative health care initiative is likely dashed while the government grapples with massive deficits. In January, Markin posted an open letter to Pure North program participants assuring them that it would not shut down but that the foundation “is currently undergoing a restructuring . . . to be financially sustainable.”
And so, he carries on. Why, exactly? He answers simply: “Because I can. And because it needs doing.” Even if it continues to drain his fortune? “I’ve moved beyond the pursuit of happiness in my life. I strive for peace. And this brings me peace.”