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We Interviewed Dr. John O’Connor, One of the First Tar Sands Whistleblowers

Dr. John O'Connor is a Fort McMuarry physician who first spoke out about the potential impact of tar sands on the public back in 2006. Soon after that, he was accused of misconduct by Health Canada and his medical licence was in jeopardy. We...
March 3, 2014, 4:53pm

Dr. John O'Connor, on a flight to Fort Chipewyan. Photo by Charlene O'Connor.

Alberta’s doctors are still shaken by the story of Dr. John O’Connor, a Fort McMurray physician who first spoke out about the potential impact of the tar sands on human health back in 2006. After years of treating patients in Fort Chipewyan, a remote community downstream from Fort McMurray’s open-pit mines and toxic lakes, he became alarmed by the prevalence of rare cancers in Fort Chip’s tiny, primarily indigenous population. When he suggested that the cancer could explained by pollution from the oil industry, he was accused of misconduct by Health Canada and risked losing his medical licence. And although he’s been cleared of all charges, doctors throughout Alberta are now reluctant to diagnose patients who think the oil industry has impacted their health.


O’Connor was just in Washington, D.C., where he briefed members of the senate on the health impacts of the tar sands ahead of their Keystone XL pipeline decision. He’s since returned to Fort Mac, where he took some time to speak with me about what it’s like to advocate for public health in the face of the largest industrial project on the planet.

VICE: Your story began in 2006, when you said a high rate of rare cancers in Fort Chipewyan could be linked to oil sands projects upstream. How did this discovery come about?
Dr. John O'Connor: Well, what happened even before that was these vivid descriptions from people—especially elders in the community—regarding the changes they'd seen in their environment. You know, consistent descriptions of the change in the water, the fish and widllife, and particularly the plant-life that they would use as their traditional medicines. Each one of them was describing the same changes: They could no longer eat the fish or drink the water from the lake, which stood in stark contrast with what they grew up with—clean water, edible and abundant fish. There was story after story.

With the causations of cancer, you can divide them up into bad luck, lifestyle, genetics, and environment. And from the genetics and the lifestyle angles, they’ve been pretty much ruled out in Fort Chipewyan—in as much as you can rule it out without a health study. Bad luck can happen at any point, anywhere. For environmental influences, I think about the traditional knowledge, what the elders repeatedly described.


Since then, there’s independent science that’s built up detailing the impact that the industry has had on the land, water, and air of the environment there. This is completely contrary to what the government and industry have been spouting for years. With those scientific studies came documentation of carcinogens that are in the environment and getting into the food chain. There’s more and more smoking guns now that strongly point to the likelihood that industry is the culprit.

What kind of symptoms were people in Fort Chipewyan showing?
The cancers are sort of one extreme—blood and lymphatic cancer, thyroid cancer, central nervous system cancer and bile duct, biliary tract cancer, presenting in different symptoms in different ways. Part of me coming in was getting to know the patients, getting to know what happened before, and learning about the families and people who had passed away. I started going to Fort Chip in 2000… the history that predated me arriving was very striking. As I got to know patients, coming in with various symptoms, I sent them out for tests and got the results back. These were very, very concerning. I saw a lot of auto-immune diseases, like Lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, a lot of skin disorders, gastro-intestinal disorders of various types, just a lot. Taken as a whole in the population that was only 850—it was just phenomenal. It didn’t make any sense.


How do you think they were exposed?
A number of people in the community work in industry so they fly in and out from Fort Chip. But there’s also been a reliance—80 percent of the community survives off the land, hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering. I think that number is diminished now. Fishing is gone. There was a commercial fishery there for years, for a month and a half each year, and that has died off. I know some of the elders now, they won’t eat the fish, unfortunately. One elder told me that the only fish he eats now is tuna he buys at the supermarket… There’s been a push away from traditional foods for a large chunk of the population, because the foods are so tainted.

Some studies suggest leaky tailings ponds upriver in Fort McMurray could be the source of pollution for the tainted foods. What do you think?
I’m not an expert—I’m a family physician. But when I look at the science that’s out there, and the works of Professor Schindler and his team, it’s amazing work demonstrating that the tailings are—and that the industry is—impacting [the food supply]. Environment Canada’s report of two or three weeks ago traced the toxins that they were detecting in the water to one tailings pond leaking at the rate of 6.5 million litres a day. The government line was: “Oh, it’s all naturally occurring.” Well, Environment Canada scientists proved: “No, it’s not. This is industry related and sourced.”


Last year we had a report from Dr. Cowan—he issued a report that compared the fish from the Gulf of Mexico after the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, he compared those fish with the fish that were examined after the Exxon Valdeez disaster off Alaska. And the Athabasca fish that we brought out to a press conference at the University of Alberta in 2010, and had been being caught for years now—deformed fish, very abnormal fish—he compared the findings and they all shared the same abnormalities from exposure.

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. 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.

The punitive actions taken against you seem to still be deterring doctors from connecting health problems to industrial activity. Specifically, there were four charges of misconduct raised against you by Health Canada that were investigated by the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons, including blocking access to files, billing inconsistencies, and causing "undue alarm" in Fort Chipewyan. These charges have all been dropped, but did they ever have any merit?
No. I couldn’t allow or block access to files in Fort Chip. The files were not mine. The nurse in charge in the community made that very clear, back then, that she is ultimately the guardian, the caretaker of the files. And she has the last word as to whether information goes in or out…


Billing inconsistencies, they pointed to a contract that I had with Health Canada… When a doctor agrees to go to a remote area, like an aboriginal community, transportation out there is generally subsidized or provided by Health Canada for on-reserve communitied. There’s no guarantee that you’re going to see more than a handful of patients, so it can be a poorly paying proposition to go out and do it. This contract was theirs. They asked me if I would be interested to sign it, and I re-signed it, year after year. But it was their contract. There were no billing irregularities whatsoever, and that’s what they were referring to.

And raising “undue alarm” in the community? The community had tried for years on its own to have its voice heard. The fishermen tried on two occasions—they collected deformed fish from the lake and stored them for transportation out to Edmonton and maybe beyond for authorities to look at, and they were just left there to rot. Nobody ever picked them up. They repeatedly talked about the changes they were seeing and the illnesses in the community—and this is before I arrived in Fort Chip. They were ignored. This was an ongoing health crisis in the community and I walked into it. I simply brought it to the attention of authorities, and then I was told I was raising undue alarm. When anyone in the community I talked to said, “No, we’re alarmed because we were being ignored. No, we are relieved that this is out.” I was told repeatedly, “Now we have a voice and it’s you.” That was said to me again and again by community members.


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

A sign outside of the home of a family who say they abandoned their home in Peace River, Alberta due to pollution. Photo via Allan Gignoux.

Did you face any other repercussions for publicly suggesting that these health problems could be tied to oil sands development?
Not really. The College of Physicians did what they did. But I had nothing but support at the Alberta Medical Association, the Canadian Medical Association, the president of the Canadian Medical Association—support across the board. 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. I wouldn’t want to go through it again. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

Has the government acknowledged any link between the health issues and industrial development?
Oh, no. On the contrary, they’ve denied. They’ve continued to deny that there is a link. They quote the Royal Society of Canada report from three years ago that said there’s no evidence of a link between industrial activity and health issues in Fort Chip. Well, of course you wouldn’t find a link if you didn’t look. When you look at the independent science—the toxins that have been identified—and you look at the illnesses, it’s like connecting the dots. It’s just that the line hasn’t been drawn to join up that final connection piece. Of course, the illnesses could be related to industrial activity. Even based on the precautionary principal, you’ve got a burden of pathology, you’ve got a huge impact on the environment, you’ve got a river flowing north … when you look at the actual illnesses in the community and you look at the toxins that have been identified, they can absolutely be linked. The government has said, “no, there’s no connection,” even in spite of all the scientific studies that have come out. It’s an indictment of where they’re at. They’re so cozy with industry it’s nauseating.


What levels of government do you believe are misrepresenting the impact of industry?
Provincial and federal. They’ve both adopted the same stance, the same attitude, one supporting the other. It’s terrible, but that is the case.

Is the medical establishment helping the government misrepresent this situation?
I don’t think so. The medical establishment—Health Canada—has not been of any assistance at all. This is their turf, so to speak. They’re responsible for on-reserve health and this has occurred on their watch. They’ve put a lot of effort into trying to shut me up, from 2007 to 2009. The first visit from Health Canada into the community, when this story started to come out, was in early 2006.

Three physicians from Health Canada came up from Edmonton and one of them, with a Globe and Mail reporter in tow, one of them filled their mouth with water in the nursing station in Fort Chip. They turned around and said, “See, there’s nothing wrong with the water here in Fort Chip.” That was a litmus test for him, really, apparently he could tell just by having a mouth full of water that there was nothing wrong. Which was a total insult to the community. He totally missed the point—this is not just about water, this is much bigger. Anyway, they have never been back to do anything or say anything.

At the recent public inquiry into Peace River’s bitumen emissions, Dr. Margaret Sears presented a report that found “physicians are frankly afraid to diagnose health conditions linked to the oil and gas industry.” Additionally, Sears found, an Alberta laboratory refused their analytical services to patients who believed that industry made them ill. What do you think is preventing doctors and labs from helping these patients?
I read her report. I read the newspaper reports obviously, too, but I also spoke with one of the Labrecque family who was involved in this. It was clear that the doctors in the Peace River area feel that because of what happened to me back then, that they would have reason to be concerned that they might have a college complaint or license altering actions taken if they dared to speak about health symptoms and the tar sands. So, it’s very hard to blame them for thinking that. I mean, I don’t know, personally, of any situation where a doctor has had to go through what I’ve gone through—so that’s their reference point. I don’t blame them at all. Probably they’re safer now than what they would have been eight or ten years ago, because my situation is out there. I don’t think any person in a position of authority would do the same thing again to doctors simply doing their duty. I sympathize with them. It’s tough and awful that this has to be the case. Hopefully with the reassurance I read about from the College of Physicians and the Alberta Medical Association, doctors will feel a little bit less reluctant to assess and consider everything.


The symptoms in Peace River that I read about could well be related to exposure to the fumes from these storage facilities—I’ve had countless patients who have said the same thing. When you’re driving past the tar sands heading north from Fort McMurray, it’s so common to have sore throat, the eye irritation, the headaches, nausea, et cetera, et cetera.

Obviously there are other things that could cause these symptoms, but you look at everything. Among the things you shouldn’t be afraid to do is to consider that it could be related to industry exposure and send people for testing. So hopefully with the reassurance of the college and the Alberta Medical Association, it’ll make it easier for people to feel a bit less apprehensive.

Alberta's tar sands. Photo via.

What reassurance was given exactly? Do you mean the 2007 resolution from the Canadian Medical Association that called for whistleblower protection?
That sort of got lost in the shuffle. I don’t think that the doctors realize… the registrar of the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Edmonton and the president of the Alberta Medical Association gave interviews to the Edmonton Journal a week or two ago and said that physicians have a duty and that nobody will criticize them or take them to task for sending people for testing or considering that it could be related to industrial exposure. I presume that the quotes were direct quotes. So that’s very fresh, and that’s new, and that’s in addition to the 2007 whistleblower protection.

Do you think this will instill confidence in doctors who are afraid to come forward with this kind of information?
I hope so. I would imagine that there’s more than the doctors in Peace River and myself who are seeing patients with these issues—or similar ones—in proximity to some of these developments. The symptoms and the complaints that people have are so common. It’s difficult to envisage that there are not more out there that would come forward.

Alberta Health Services is expected to release updated cancer statistics for Fort Chipewyan this month. It’s already been a source of conflict, with Fort Chipewyan’s leaders backing out of a recent meeting after AHS wouldn’t share their findings in advance. Do you think these new statistics will accurately reflect the crisis? Will they spur government action?
It doesn’t matter what information is released, because the promised health study never happened. And it needs to happen. Additional information is fine, but now let’s get on with a comprehensive health study. And at this point in time, I think I pretty much know the attitude and the feeling in the community—it would need to be completely independent, not a government-run study. Because I think the community has completely lost trust and are totally disillusioned with government’s interest in them.

So government wants the health study to be done with industry funding?
No, they want industry to be part of the management oversight committee. I don’t think they approached industry for funding. But they wanted industry overseeing the health study, which makes absolutely no sense… Industry has nothing to do with the provision of health care, it’s not part of government, it’s not part of local infrastructure in that area. Fort Chip’s reaction is that this could be like the fox looking after the hen house.

What’s the best way forward for the tar sands?
Stopping the industry at this point would be a disaster. A different disaster. Because poverty kills a lot faster and a lot more assuredly than exposure. And people would be thrown into poverty, no doubt about that. But, like the recently retired PC MP for the region, Brian Jean, said: “The development should be slowed down.” I am thinking of a moratorium on any new approvals. They’re talking about tripling the tar sands. I think that would be a terrible, terrible thing to happen, without a comprehensive, credible independent health study being completed.

And there’s other issues in Fort Mac, with infrastructure. The hospital is woefully small for the population. I work at the hospital for five days a month and it’s constantly full. No empty beds… at the [emergency room] people are lined up out the door, from the population explosion due to industrial activity increasing. For lots of reasons, I think we have to look at slowing down. From a health standpoint, it absolutely needs to be reined in. At least until we know what's going on.  @M_Tol