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The Alberta Doctor Who Claimed Tar Sands Are Connected to Cancer Was Fired

One of the Canada's most outspoken advocates on the ties between the tar sands and adverse health effects has been dismissed from his job without notice.
Mack Lamoureux
Toronto, Canada
May 19, 2015, 6:19pm

John O'Connor. Photo courtesy Charlene O'Connor

One of the Canada's most outspoken advocates on the ties between the tar sands and adverse health effects has been dismissed from his job without notice.

Earlier this month Dr. John O'Connor received a brief email informing him of his termination from the Fort Chipewyan (Fort Chip) Health Center where he was working remotely as a consultant. O'Connor started his position at Fort Chip in 2000 and early on, he started noticing abnormal amounts of rare cancers of the bile ducts among his patients. This included cholangiocarcinoma, the same type of cancer that killed O'Connor's father a decade prior.

Fort Chip is located 300 km north of the heart of Alberta's tar sands, Fort McMurray, and O'Connor raised concerns that these rare cancers could be linked to industry and pushed for further research.

"There's definitely a relationship between development and industry and the abnormalities that are being detected. And when you look at the population that's been most impacted in Fort Chip, you would definitely figure it's related to consumption of traditional foods that have been impacted by industry," O'Connor told VICE in an interview last year. "But there are other people that got sick that wouldn't have been around long enough to have had all that level of exposure."

"There's nothing clear-cut about this at all. It emphasizes an underlying need for a comprehensive health study."

Dr. O'Connor's whistleblowing raised what can only be described as a shit storm among pro-oil advocates and the doctor experienced one hell of a backlash. He was labeled as an alarmist and charlatan and Health Canada reacted to these claims, and others, by filing four complaints of misconduct against O'Connor. These including blocking access to files, billing irregularities, and causing "undue alarm." If found guilty, O'Connor could have been stripped of his license to practice. Eventually though, the complaints were all dropped. (The final charge, causing "undue alarm," was dropped in 2009, after a two-year investigation by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta).

"So, the charges were absolutely trumped up, no-basis in reality," O'Connor told VICE. "And it took me two years and eight months to get this off my back."

"Not one of my colleagues—no physicians at all—criticized me. I got nothing but support. But it was in three years of hell, without knowing what the outcome would be," he added. "I wouldn't want to go through it again. I wouldn't wish it on anyone."

O'Connor left the community in 2007. He continued serving Fort Chipewyan 24/7 remotely by phone, advising nurses, referring specialists, etc. It was in this function that he served until his position was suddenly terminated.

The email offered no explanation on why he was let go, but Mikisew Cree Chief Steve Courtoreille told the Edmonton Journal that the fact that O'Connor was only doing phone consultations played a part in the decision. The letter dismissing O'Connor also informed him that he no longer can speak on behalf of Fort Chip and the other communities that the Nunnee Health Board represents.

"In addition, you have no authority to speak to or represent the Nunee Health Board Society in any way to any other individual, party or entity," the letter read.

Essentially O'Connor can no longer advocate for the people of Fort Chipewyan.

The doctor was shocked at his dismissal from his long time post. He was being paid $5,000 a month for his services, but because of his attachment to the community had offered to reduce his pay and even do the job for free.

"I emailed back and asked them 'why?' but didn't get a response," O'Connor told APTN, who originally broke the story. "It's like losing a very close family member except they're still there."

"Like I've been put into exile."

O'Connor did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.

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Correction: An earlier version of this story said Health Canada filed "charges" against Dr. O'Connor. Health Canada filed four complaints of misconduct, which were all eventually cleared.