Cry Wolf: An Unethical Oil Story

Over the last several years, Alberta has killed more than 500 wolves using aerial sharpshooters and poisoned bait in order to conceal the impact of rapid industrial development on Canada’s iconic woodland caribou.

Independent scientists say that declining caribou health stems chiefly from habitat destruction caused by the encroachment of the tar sands and timber industries. But in a perverse attempt to cover industry’s tracks, the Alberta government is ignoring the science and shifting the blame to a hapless scapegoat: the wolf.

As DeSmogBlog reported earlier this year, the Alberta Caribou Committee, tasked with the recovery of the province’s dwindling caribou populations, is dominated by timber, oil and gas industry interests. Participating scientists have been silenced – their reports rewritten and their recommendations overlooked.
The prospect of the expansion of this unscientific wolf cull, projected to claim the lives of roughly 6,000 wolves over the next five years, has outraged conservationists and wildlife experts. While the wolves dodge bullets and poison, this scandal is flying largely under the public radar.
A team of DeSmogBlog researchers traveled to the Tar Sands region to investigate the dirty oil politics behind this fool’s errand. Here is our first report:Cry Wolf: An Unethical Oil Story.

Is this what “ethical oil” looks like? 

Rather than relying on science to protect caribou habitat and restore this iconic species, Alberta is killing wolves in order to protect unfettered industrial development.
As a result, our unethical oil addiction is leading to one of the most shameful wildlife control programs ever imagined. Government complicity, on both the federal and provincial levels, leaves biologists caught up in the mix with no higher power to appeal to. Real science is shelved, while industry-friendly political decisions prevail.
What does this say about the state of our democracy when scientists are ignored and industry profits are prioritized ahead of safeguarding iconic wildlife species?
Stay tuned for more details as DeSmog continues our investigation into this controversial issue.

Take Action

You can make a difference by participating in these actions to stop the unscientific wolf cull.

Credo actionTell the Canadian government: Stop your tar sands wolf kills! – Over 200,000 voices in opposition to the wolf killings.

DeSmogBlog petition on – Tell Canada’s federal Environment Minister Peter Kent, who considers the cull “an accepted if regrettable scientific practice,” to put an end to the reckless wolf slaughter.

Alberta Provincial petition – Put some pressure on at the provincial level too, by signing this petition to Frank Oberle, Minister of Alberta’s Sustainable Resource Development and Fiona Schmiegelow from the University of Alberta.
NWF Action Center – American residents can go here to send a letter to their senator or representative in order to connect the dots between the Keystone XLtar sands pipeline and the wolf cull. Also watch National Wildlife Federation scientist David Mizejewski on the Today Show and read NWF‘s report on the plan to poison wolves to protect tar sands interests.

For more information on the tar sands, check out DeSmogBlog’s tar sands action page.

And for those who may be unfamiliar with what the ‘ethical oil’ campaign is,check out our previous coverage of the Sierra Club’s John Bennett and Ethical Oil Institute spokesperson Kathryn Marshall on CBC‘s Power and Politics with Evan Solomon.

Health Study in Fort Chipewyan 2014 – Full Report

Health Study in Fort Chipewyan 2014 – Full Report


Health Study Reveals Alarming Links Between Oil Sands Contaminants and Incidence of Illness

July 7, 2014, Edmonton, AB – Today the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) and the Mikisew Cree First Nation (MCFN), in collaboration with researchers from the University of Manitoba, released a reportEnvironmental and Human Health Implications of Athabasca Oil Sands, and is the first report of its kind to draw an associations between oil sands produced environmental contaminants  and declines in community health and well-being in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta.  This report has been peer reviewed by Health Canada and other health and environmental agencies.

Integrating scientific research methods and local knowledge, the report is the result of three years of community-based participatory research that incorporates both the traditional knowledge of community members and scientific monitoring techniques.

MCFN Chief Steve Courtoreille says, “This report confirms what we have always suspected. about the association between  environmental contaminants from oil sands production upstream and cancer and other serious illness in our community.  The Joint Oil Sands Monitoring Programme has released data about the increases in these contaminants, but fails to address and monitor impacts to First Nations traditional foods. We are greatly alarmed and demand further research and studies are done to expand on the findings of this report.”

Findings include generally high concentrations of carcinogenic PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), and heavy metals arsenic, mercury, cadmium, and selenium in kidney and liver samples from moose, ducks, muskrats, and beavers harvested by community members. Bitumen extraction and upgrading is a major emitter of all of these contaminants.

Contaminants in wildlife, as well as limited access due to declining water levels, have nearly eliminated the consumption of some traditional foods; fish caught in Lake Athabasca and the Athabasca River are no longer trusted, while muskrat populations have declined precipitously.

ACFN Chief Allan Adam notes that “It’s frustrating to be constantly filling the gaps in research and studies that should have already been done.  This demonstrates the lack of respect by industry and government to effecting address the First Nations concerns about impacts our Treaty rights and the increases in rare illnesses in our community. We need further independent studies done by internationally credible institutions like the World Health Organization.”

Community health and wellbeing have been in sharp decline. The study reveals a link between the Oil Sands and illness in Fort Chipewyan unlike the 2014 cancer report by Alberta Health Service which simply aggregated limited data.. Indeed, cancer occurrence in Fort Chipewyan is positively associated with the consumption of traditional wild foods, including locally caught fish.

“Communities are facing a double-bind”, says Stephane McLachlan, head researcher for the study. “On one hand, industry, notably the Oil Sands, causes a substantial decline in the health of the environment and ultimately of community members. On the other hand, the existing healthcare services are unable to address these declines in human health. These Indigenous communities are caught in the middle, and the impacts are clear and worrisome.”

Researchers and the community leaders urge further investigation of contaminant concentrations, in addition to the mitigation of existing occurrences.  The report also emphasizes continued community-based monitoring and calls for improved risk communication from government and industry.


For More Information:

Eriel Deranger, ACFN Communications Coordinator 780-903-6598

Dr. Stephane McLachlan, University of Manitoba 204-297-0321

‘Alarming’ New Study Finds Contaminants in Animals Downstream of Oilsands

A health study released today by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Mikisew Cree, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Manitoba, is the first of its kind to draw associations between environmental contaminants produced in the oilsands and declines in health in Fort Chipewyan, a native community about 300 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, Alberta.

The report, Environmental and Human Health Implications of Athabasca Oil Sands, finds health impacts for communities downstream of the Alberta oilsands are “positively associated” with industrial development and the consumption of traditional foods, including locally caught fish.

Dr. Stéphane McLachlan, lead environmental health researcher for the report, said the study’s results “as they relate to human health, are alarming and should function as a wakeup call to industry, government and communities alike.”

Findings include generally high concentrations of carcinogenic PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), and heavy metals arsenic, mercury, cadmium and selenium in kidney and liver samples from moose, ducks, muskrats and beavers harvested by community members. A press release for the study says bitumen extraction and upgrading is a major emitter of all of these contaminants.

The Joint Oil Sands Monitoring Program has released data about the increases in these contaminants, but fails to address and monitor impacts to First Nations traditional foods,” said Mikisew Cree Chief Steve Courtoreille. “We are greatly alarmed and demand further research and studies are done to expand on the findings of this report.”

The First Nations worked in concert with University of Manitoba scientists, blending “western science and traditional ecological knowledge” to evaluate contaminant levels and potential community exposure, according to the press release.

This is the first health study that has been conducted in close collaboration with community members of Fort Chipewyan,” McLachlan said in a recent interview.

The results are grounded in the environment and health sciences, but also in the local traditional knowledge shared by community members. Unlike any of the other studies it has been actively shaped and controlled by both the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Mikisew Cree First Nation from the outset.”

The report comes on the heels of the fifth annual ‘healing walk’ in the oilsands region, during which Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said the report would “blow the socks off industry and government.”

Concerns over high rates of rare forms of bile duct, cervical and lung cancers have worried residents of Fort Chipewyan, a small community 300 kilometres downstream of the oilsands, for years.

A government report in March 2014 found elevated rates of the three forms of cancer in Fort Chip, but suggested overall cancer rates fall on par with cancer rates elsewhere in the province. The report’s author, Dr. James Tablot, chief medical officer for Alberta health, said there was little evidence environmental factors played a role in the elevated cancer rates.

The report was treated as largely inconclusive and confirmed the need for further, independent study.

An editorial in the Calgary Herald argued the report confirmed the need to “settle the matter once and for all” and called for an independent study.

Only then will the nagging fear — whether founded or unfounded — that the Alberta government is too closely linked with the oilsands to provide objective data and conclusions, be put to rest.”

The community of Fort Chip has struggled for years to have a comprehensive, baseline health study conducted.

In March, Chief Adam suggested it was “time for a real study, that is peer reviewed and done in partnership with our communities.” He suggested the government report was conducted to “ease the public response to this and garner more support for approvals of more projects in the region.”

Today researchers and community leaders called for further investigation of contaminant concentrations, as well as community-based monitoring and improved risk communications from government and industry.

The Oilsands Cancer Story Part 3: The Spotlight Turns on Fort Chip Doctor

This is the third installment in a three-part series on Dr. John O’Connor, the family physician to first identify higher-than-average cancer rates and rare forms of cancer in communities downstream of the Alberta oilsands.

Part 3: The Spotlight Turns On Fort Chip Doctor

After the story of Fort Chip’s health problems broke, Health Canada sent physicians out to the small, northern community.

Dr. John O’Connor said one of the Health Canada doctors went into the local nursing station and, in front of a reporter, filled a mug with Fort Chip water and drank from it, saying, ‘See, there’s nothing wrong with it.’

That was such a kick in the face for everyone,” O’Connor said. “Just a complete dismissal of their concerns.”

Health Canada eventually requested the charts of the patients who had died. Six weeks later they announced the findings of a report that concluded cancer rates were no higher in Fort Chip than expected.

For O’Connor, however, the numbers “just didn’t match up.”

The small town of Fort Chipewyan can reached by plane all year round. In the summer the community can be reached by boat or by ice road during the colder winter months. Photo by Kris Krug.

A sign in the Fort Chip airport terminal welcomes visitors to the “oldest settlement in Alberta.” Photo by Kris Krug.

In March of 2007 O’Connor received a letter of complaint from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta that accused him of raising “undue alarm.” Three physicians from Health Canada lodged four complaints with the college against O’Connor, claiming he had failed to provide files in a timely fashion and withheld information. They accused him of engendering mistrust.

O’Connor admits that a minor scandal involving a male nurse in Fort Chip who had been stealing morphine and threatening female nurses didn’t help with submitting paperwork. But, he said, the charges were overblown, also including accusations of billing irregularities and ‘double-dipping’ on contracts.

What followed was a nationwide two-year public trial.O’Connor’s name was publicly dragged through the mud while the town of Fort Chip and members of his profession fought to defend him. The attacks on his credibility were widely seen as politicized, leading the Canadian Medical Association to pass resolution #103, to provide protection for whistleblowers like O’Connor.

In 2009, the College of Physicians officially cleared him of any wrong doing, handing along a massive summary file with the word “confidential” stamped across the front. Since then, he’s been heralded as a heroic Canadian whistleblower.

During the ordeal, O’Connor moved back to Nova Scotia for a break while another physician took over his work in Fort Chip.

I’ve got a very strong wife. My rock. Charlene is just amazing. I don’t think I would have survived if it wasn’t for her,” O’Connor said. “I’m a much tougher person now than what I was. It was hell but I went through it.”

In the interim, a scientist had overseen testing in November of 2007 that warned of high concentrations of arsenic and mercury in the water and traditional foods. A doctor later publicly recommended pregnant women and children not eat any fish from the lake or play in the water.

Health Canada followed up on the recommendation, saying they had already recommended something similar, but the community said it hadn’t been informed.

Then in 2009 an Alberta Cancer Board study was finally released that stated the community had 30 per cent higher rare cancer rates than should be expected. The report amended the Health Canada findings from 2006 that suggested cancer rates were no higher than expected.

In light of this new report, a scientific team was assembled to put together a new study. O’Connor was asked to be a part of the team.

The fact that we were going to have a health study at Fort Chip [was] very encouraging,” he said.

The frozen expanse of Lake Athabasca. Photo by Kris Krug.

But things soon fell apart after a clause in the template of the health study mandated the oil industry be part of the management oversight committee of the research.

The community was outraged, O’Connor said, and the fissure that formed then has, even five years later, still not been mended.

Good intentions

To this day, independent, comprehensive baseline studies of the community of Fort Chip have still not been conducted.

However, last month the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Mikisew Cree First Nation, both local to Fort Chip, released a study conducted in collaboration with scientists from the University of Manitoba. The research showed health impacts downstream of the oilsands are “positively associated” with the development and the consumption of traditional foods.

In 2011, O’Connor was asked to participate in an Alberta government study, one of which will take place in Fort MacKay. The announcement was made publicly, among much publicity, he said. Some of the work being done in Fort MacKay was supposed to act as a template for future Fort Chip research, he said.

A signpost in Fort Chip shows distances and direction to cities across Canada. Photo by Kris Krug.

But since then the study has lagged, and, according to O’Connor, his letters and phone calls to the Alberta Health Minister go unanswered. Comprehensive studies of both Fort MacKay and Fort Chip are still pending.

The community members of Fort Chip and O’Connor himself are “demanding the government keep its promise of a health study, but we’re getting nowhere with that,” he said.

Going it alone

O’Connor said for now he’s relying on the independent scientific studies that are being done in the environment downstream of the oilsands. A February 2014 study published in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a cancer-causing pollutant released during the extraction of bitumen in the oilsands, were likely two to three times higher than government and industry estimates.

In November of 2012 federal scientists from Environment Canada presented research that found PAHs from oilsands extraction and processing were accumulating in bodies of water up to 100 kilometres away. Yet another federal study found tailings ponds, which cover an area larger than 176 square kilometres, are seeping waste water and mining-related toxins into local groundwater.

Steam rises from a tailings pond in the Fort McMurray region. Industry estimates there are 176 square kilometres of tailings ponds. Photo by Kris Krug.

O’Connor said, put together, these studies paint a disturbing picture. “And you know, all they are telling me completely contradicted what government and industry have been saying for years: that there’s no impact, no evidence of contributions, degradation to the environment from industry.”

Even the release of new research, he says, hasn’t been enough to trigger new health studies.

So we’re trying to go it alone,” he said.

O’Connor has assembled a team of science and health experts to examine the industrial impacts in Fort MacKay and hopes he can eventually include Fort Chip.

At this point, O’Connor said, neither Fort MacKay nor Fort Chip are in any position to accept a government study on the health impacts of industry. The necessary trust relationships at this point are nonexistent.

An advocate become activist

For O’Connor, his experience working with the community of Fort Chip, and his efforts to find some accountability for their plight, has been something of a transformative experience.

All I’m doing is my job,” he said. “I’m just… As a physician, I’m an advocate for my patients. I never realized how….” He paused, “exactly what the job meant until Fort Chip.”

O’Connor said he’ll continue fighting for the community of Fort Chip. But beyond that, O’Connor now sees himself as more than just as an advocate for his patients: he’s an activist.

I’m now – thanks to the Alberta government and the federal government – I’m now a dyed-in-the-wool advocate. I’m an activist for my patients. Never imagined I would be doing this and I’ll do it ‘til the day I die.”

In February 2014, O’Connor traveled to Washington to testify on the affects of the oilsands industry, in light of the U.S.’s pending decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, which will connect Alberta to refineries and export facilities in the Gulf of Mexico. He was invited by Senator Barbara Boxer.

Dr. John O’Connor speaking on the negative impacts of oilsands development at a press conference in Washington. Image credit:EWPChairBoxer via Flickr.

It was gratifying to get the invitation from Senator Boxer’s office,” O’Connor said. “The reception there was incredible. The information that was already known. I was very happy that I was walking into a setting where I wasn’t having to start from scratch.”

O’Connor added, “I made it very firm that I’m not saying to shut things down…But there has to be a sort of a middle ground.”

He added, “I certainly hold the governments to account…But government has failed, completely failed people, betrayed people.”

Read part 1 of The Oilsands Cancer Story: Dr. John O’Connor and the Dawn of a New Oilsands Era and part 2: Deformed Fish, Dying Muskrats Cause Doctor to Sound Alarm.

The Oilsands Cancer Story Part 1: John O’Connor and the Dawn of a New Oilsands Era

Sat, 2014-07-26 11:21CAROL LINNITT

Carol Linnitt's picture

The Oilsands Cancer Story Part 1: John O’Connor and the Dawn of a New Oilsands Era

Fort Chipewyan, located downstream of the oilsands, has higher than average cancer rates.

This is the first installment of a three-part series on Dr. John O’Connor, the family physician to first identify higher-than-average cancer rates and rare forms of cancer in communities downstream of the Alberta oilsands.

Part 1: The Doctor and the Dawn of a New Oilsands Era: ‘It Was Fascinating’

The day John O’Connor landed in Canada from his native Ireland,* he had no idea how much he would end up giving to this land, nor how much it would ultimately demand from him.

I had no intention of staying in Canada,” he told DeSmog Canada in a recent interview. “The intention was to go back.”

But I got enchanted with Canada.”

That was back in 1984 when O’Connor first arrived in Canada for a three-month locum.

With a large family practice already well established in Scotland, O’Connor had no real intention of settling in this foreign land where, in a few decades, he would find himself embroiled in a national conflict — a conflict that would pick at so many of our country’s deepest-running wounds involving oil, First Nations and the winners and losers of our resource race.

No, when O’Connor landed in Canada he was just planning to fill a temporary family physician position in Nova Scotia. Soon after his arrival, however, his light curiosity about Canada transformed into a newfound passion. He was hooked.

It was just a perfect match for me.”

After nearly a decade, O’Connor decided a shift to Alberta made sense for him and his growing family. He travelled there in search of what so many still do: opportunity.

The kids were getting to the point where I realized I would probably like to look at opportunities in terms of careers that may not have been available in the Maritimes. So I came out to Alberta in 1993.”

O’Connor landed in Edmonton, rented a car and explored four practices with openings for new physicians.

Fort McMurray was the last destination, and it looked the most attractive of all of the options,” he said.

Back in ’93 Fort McMurray was an entirely different place. With a population of around 30,000 people, the community was far from a boom town. It was under-doctored, said O’Connor, and extremely friendly. Within a few weeks, the O’Connor family made friends with patients who had kids of a similar age. They joined sports teams and attended good schools.

It was good. Don’t regret it for a second,” O’Connor said.

New beginnings

At the time, the oilsands were hardly a topic of conversation, O’Connor remembers.

You could certainly see what was being emitted from the smokestacks in the distance,” he said. Once, O’Connor even drove toward the smoke, trying to catch a glimpse of the source, but he never spent much time thinking about it.

Emissions rise from industrial facilities in the oilsands region. Photo by Kris Krug.

Many of his patients were working in the oilsands.

I would listen to their descriptions of work and everything else. And it was fascinating, but I really didn’t have time and probably not, at that point, the interest in knowing more about it,” he said.

In 1998, O’Connor travelled out to Fort MacKay, home of the Fort MacKay First Nation, for the first time.

A road sign directs traffic to Syncrude operations and the community of Fort MacKay along the main highway in Fort McMurray. Photo by Kris Krug.

It was an eye-opener,” he said, “realizing how close the community was to development. How much the community depended on the tar sands.”

When he first arrived the medical centre was no more than two double-wide trailers pulled together. Within two or three years, the band had built an impressive new centre for the community.

[There was] obviously a very important connection between the community of Fort MacKay and industry for socio-economic reasons,” O’Connor came to recognize.

It was the dawn of a new era for the region, O’Connor said. Things started to get busier.

This was the beginning of the two or three booms that we’ve seen over the last about 14 years or so. Just to be there as an observer of this and not directly dependent on the mystery…” he said of the oilsands boom.

But realizing its importance, that it was a…” O’Connor trailed off with a sigh.

He picked up again: “I’m going to write a book on this.”

My wife has grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and said, ‘Do it,’” he laughed.

We’ve talked about it for a few years and that early time that I’m trying to describe to you, it was fascinating and very important for what came later.”

Dawn of a new oilsands era

The ’90s were a transformative time for the Alberta oilsands. New advancements in technology improved the economic prospects of extracting and processing the resource and led to an ambitious industry and government strategy to dramatically increase production in 1995.

Highway 63, also known as the “Highway of Death” for its dangerous and busy conditions, runs through Fort McMurray. Photo by Kris Krug.

As a part of this new strategy the Canadian and Albertan governments dropped royalty and tax rates in an effort to generate interest in the resource.

What’s contained in the tarry sands of northern Alberta is a heavy hydrocarbon called bitumen. As industry describes it, unprocessed bitumen has the consistency of “peanut butter” and, as a result, requires tremendous amounts of energy to extract, process and upgrade into lighter fuels.

Before the technology existed to essentially melt the bitumen out of the sands, oil companies expressed little interest in the region.

But all that changed with new methods for extraction and upgrading and some of the lowest royalties and taxes in the world.

By 1995, Alberta announced a new goal of producing one million barrels a day from the oilsands by 2020. They passed that goal 16 years early in 2004. Plans now involve producing up to 5 million barrels a day by 2030.

Retired machinery forms part of a sideroad display along the ‘Syncrude Loop’ in Fort McMurray. Photo by Kris Krug.

While these transformations took place, O’Connor’s business steadily grew, as did the need for him in downstream and local communities, especially First Nation communities.

O’Connor began to see the oilsands at this time as a “two-edged sword.”

Couldn’t possibly live without it,” he said, “but at the same time, having to contend with the fact — no doubt — about the impact; the adverse impact on environment and life in general.”

O’Connor said that in those early years the impact of development wasn’t yet visible, but by the early 2000s things started to change.

Read part 2: Deformed Fish, Dying Muskrats Cause Doctor to Sound Alarm. Stay tuned for part 3 of this series.

*Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated O’Connor was from Scotland.
Image Credit: In 2011 DeSmog author Carol Linnitt travelled to the oilsands region and Fort Chipewyan with photographer Kris Krug. All photos by Kris Krug.


The Oilsands Cancer Story Part 2: Deformed Fish, Dying Muskrats Cause Doctor To Sound Alarm

Mon, 2014-08-04 12:05CAROL LINNITT

Carol Linnitt's picture

The Oilsands Cancer Story Part 2: Deformed Fish, Dying Muskrats Cause Doctor To Sound Alarm

Robert Grandjambe Jr. Shows DeSmog Sick Fish from Lake Athabasca

This is the second installment of a three-part series on Dr. John O’Connor, the family physician to first identify higher-than-average cancer rates and rare forms of cancer in communities downstream of the Alberta oilsands.

Part 2: Deformed Fish, Dying Muskrats Cause Doctor To Sound Alarm

When Dr. John O’Connor arrived in Fort Chipewyan in 2000, it took him a little while to get familiar with the population.

The town was a bit larger than his previous post of Fort MacKay, with a population of around 1,000 at that time. Locals had few options when it came to medical care. Their town was 300 kilometres north of Fort McMurray and accessible only by plane in the summer or by ice road for a few of the colder months.

O’Connor recognized it was a close-knit community and yet hard to get a foothold in.

You had to be trusted to gain their respect, I guess,” he said.

Most doctors hadn’t established a continuous practice up there, O’Connor said, so the community hadn’t received continuous care by the same medical expert for many years.

What they were looking for was one pair of eyes, one pair of hands. Consistency,” he recounts.

That was one of the reasons why I was approached to provide service. So that made it easier to get to know people and for them to get to know me.”

O’Connor immediately began poring over patient files, piecing together what a series of seasonal doctors had left behind. Patients there felt there was no continuity between what rotating doctors would say about their symptoms.

Yet, to O’Connor, the files coupled with his continuous care of individuals began to paint one alarming picture.

What had been documented before from the patients was quite concerning. I got to know people then and people come in for various symptoms, from the day-to-day bread and butter type of practice to more serious stuff. I began to see that there are issues in Fort Chip that I shouldn’t be seeing at a practice even in Fort McMurray, with 4,000 to 5,000 patients. I wasn’t seeing anything like the pathology I was seeing in Fort Chip.”

What O’Connor discovered was a strikingly high concentration of cancer in the small community. The files were actually well organized, O’Connor said, and he began to add to them, ordering new tests and gaining new patients.

The numbers just started to mount up,” he said. “It just didn’t make sense.”

O’Connor began reaching out to other doctors and specialists, asking them if they also thought the pathologies in Fort Chip were notable. Even at that early time, O’Connor said, “there was a general agreement” that the cancer rates and rates of other illnesses were unusually high. O’Connor cautioned, though, that those were the early days: “of course, at that point, that was very early – early times of trying to figure out why.”

And I guess, in many respects we’re still trying to figure that out, because no studies have ever been done,” he said.

The thing that was really striking was that Fort Chip is way off the beaten track,” O’Connor said. “It’s right on the edge of the Canadian shield, in a gorgeous location. The population — less so now — but back then, probably 80 per cent of the community in one way or another subsisted off the land.”

Located in the muskeg of Canada’s expansive boreal forest, Fort Chip is located on the shores of Lake Athabasca and is surrounded by prime hunting lands. Throughout history, traditional peoples have fed themselves on a steady diet of moose, caribou, fish and other local fauna.

A river meanders through the muskeg of the Boreal Forest. Photo by Kris Krug.

The frozen shore of Lake Athabasca. The Athabasca River flows north through the oilsands region and drains directly into Lake Athabasca. Photo by Kris Krug.

But by the early 2000s the locals began noticing disturbing changes in the local environment.

As O’Connor documented case after case of cancer and other illnesses, he also began hearing more stories of a changing local landscape.

I had a lot of concerns expressed by especially the elders,” O’Connor recounted, “about the changes that they’ve seen in their environment around Fort Chip in the, probably, 10 plus years, prior to me coming in.”

The thing he heard elders talking the most about, he said, was water.

They talked about the fishing and going out on Lake Athabasca to fish, and then stopping at one of the many islands in the lake and…camping for a day or two, being able to drink the water directly from the lake and how fresh it tasted. It was really good water, and they’d use it to make tea and make soup and stuff like that. And they could no longer do it.”

O’Connor says elders described a “constant sheen of oil” atop the water, the colours of the rainbow and attributed the water’s foul taste to that. It wasn’t long before locals began asking if the sheen was connected to what was going on upstream, O’Connor said.

What sounded the alarm were the strange fish.

They talked about the fish that they were catching with increasing regularity,” O’Connor said. “These fish had deformities and missing parts and extra parts. Fish with red blotches all over them. Fish didn’t taste the same. Many of the elders, traditional food consumers, threw the fish back into the lake.”

Robert Grandjambe Jr., a trapper and fisher in Fort Chipewyan, shows DeSmog sick fish from Lake Athabasca. He explains he feeds strange-looking fish to his dogs. Photo by Kris Krug.

After that the local muskrat population died off. Muskrat were consumed by locals and their pelts used or traded. Eventually they became harder to find. And when they were found, they were often dead or the meat would smell like oil and taste bad.

Plants used in traditional medicine began to disappear too. The rat root from the shore of Lake Athabasca became increasingly scarce.

O’Connor remembers one elder, Mary Rose Waquan who only recently passed away, who told him of the ducks her sons used to hunt.

Mary Rose was a very traditional…She would eat lots. There’s very little that she would not eat. But she said the meat was bad, and she had to throw the ducks out.”

Mary Rose’s son, Archie Waquan, went on to become chief of the Mikisew Cree Nation in Fort Chip. Archie, who now owns a bed and breakfast that O’Connor frequents, has said the same thing over many late-night conversations or morning cups of coffee.

O’Connor said the community of Fort Chip, although it was suffering, hesitated to “point fingers.”

A derelict fishing boat near the shore of Lake Athabasca. Photo by Kris Krug.

They largely didn’t suggest that there was a connection with industry, but they wondered,” O’Connor said. “Most of their concern was trying to get to the bottom of what’s going on.”

O’Connor said that the community’s multiple attempts to have fish tested by Fish and Wildlife for analysis were bungled, with samples forgotten, decayed and unfit for testing.

What was once a thriving fishery eventually disappeared.

The fishing warf in Fort Chipewyan on the shores of Lake Athabasca. Photo by Kris Krug.

Sounding the alarm 

In 2003, another physician with experience in Fort Chip, Dr. Michael Sauvé, spoke up at a hearing about unusually high disease rates in First Nation communities. Afterwards the provincial Energy and Utilities Board recommended a study, funded by industry, be conducted in communities of concern, but the recommendation was never followed.

By 2004 O’Connor was leaving messages with Health Canada about what he was seeing in Fort Chip.

Things changed after an elderly patient, a school bus driver, who had lived a relatively healthy life came in to see O’Connor one day at lunchtime. All the other medical staff were out to lunch so it was just the two of them.

I was still behind the front desk in the waiting room doing paperwork and he walked in. The lights were turned off…I saw him walking in and I came to the door and I said, ‘How are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m not feeling well, so we just need to make an appointment to see you.’ And in the dim light — there was one light on behind the front desk — he looked odd. I knew him. I’d seen him probably a few weeks before for something minor. And I turned on the light and realized he was jaundiced. I asked him, ‘What’s going on?’ He told me he just didn’t feel well. He lost a bit of weight. His appetite was off, felt a bit nauseous. So I said, ‘No, let’s get you into the examining room now.’

The patient was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, a rare form of bile duct cancer, and died soon after.

O’Connor was intimately familiar with the rare disease — his own father, a book salesman, succumbed to it in 1993.

I’d never thought I’d see it again,” O’Connor said, referencing the bile duct cancer. “And then turning up in Fort Chip, realizing how rare it was, it was a shock.”

Artificial flowers decorate graves in the Fort Chipewyan cemetary. Photo by Kris Krug.

In retrospect, O’Connor said he feels being there to recognize that uncommon cancer is significant. “If I had to think of why, why did I come to Canada? This might sound corny or something [but] I truly believe that this was the reason.”

It was this experience with such a rare disease that led O’Connor to reach out to Health Canada. He said he wanted assurances that he shouldn’t be worried. “But there was never a response,” he said.

In 2006 a CBC reporter named Erik Denison was told to investigate the health of people from Fort Chip by a local businesswoman Frances Jean, according to O’Connor.

When that reporter contacted O’Connor, it was the first time he stated publicly that he felt what was happening in Fort Chip was a public health issue.

He reported it and it went everywhere. It was the most astounding thing…life for me has never been the same since.”

Read part 1 of this series: John O’Connor and the Dawn of a New Oilsands Era. Stay tuned for part 3.

Squamish Nation conducts review

By Chief Ian Campbell:  Guest columnist / North Shore News


Why does the Squamish Nation insist on conducting an independent assessment of the proposed Woodfibre LNG project?

After all, both the federal and provincial governments are conducting environmental assessments of their own.

A good question. With two good answers.

The first reason is it has much to do with protecting the valuable marine resources of the Squamish estuary and Howe Sound, both within our traditional territory.

We are working to bring Howe Sound back to a level of natural sustainability — before industrial pollution began to destroy marine life, starting with the Britannia copper mine in 1904.

Then in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, mining effluent was joined by contamination and environmental degradation from chemical plants, logging and pulp mills.

These turned the Sound into a dead and poisoned place where toxic mercury levels meant we could no longer eat the fish.

The rehabilitation of the Sound has become a sacred trust for us. And there is much good news to report: The herring are coming back; so are the wild salmon and cod; and, as recent sightings demonstrate, killer whales and Pacific white-sided dolphins are returning too. But there is a lot still to be done.

The second reason we insist on “going independent” when it comes to the Woodfibre project has to do with history. It has taught us that we can’t rely on governments who attempted to alienate us from our homelands and limit our authority and decision-making.

During 100 years of darkness, our ancestors were driven from villages at Jericho, Kitsilano and at the mouth of the Squamish Estuary.

Those lessons still resonate today. Consider Anvil Island, an important place of spiritual training for the Squamish.

According to a new book, the island was anglicized on June 14, 1792, by Captain George Vancouver, whose journal for the day reads: “The sun shining at this time for a few minutes afforded an island which, from the shape of the mountain that composes it, obtained the name of Anvil island.”

Plain and simple, the island was then stolen from our ancestors.

In 1874 after sailing throughout the Sound in search of a good place to settle, Englishman Thomas J. Keeling hauled up his dingy on Anvil Island’s shores.

He had come to Howe Sound after announcing to his wife and nine children, “I am going to Canada. Who is coming with me?”

Like many of his generation, Keeling was swept up in the excitement of Britain’s rapid expansion overseas, which seemed to offer unlimited opportunities to acquire new lands — for free.

When walking through a glade of arbutus, Keeling came upon a Squamish Indian — one old man and his cow. There was no one else on the island.

He went to the Indian agent in New Westminster and said he would like to purchase the property. But he had a slight problem — the old man.

The Indian agent said, “Take a small boat and a pistol. Point the pistol at the Indian and tell him and his cow to get on the skiff and leave for good.”

Never, ever again. Against long odds, we have regained power and control, entering the economic mainstream as free and independent citizens.

And today, in Phase Two of our independent assessment of Woodfibre, we are collating science-based data with reaction from our members.

As a next step, we will clearly spell out the risks and the benefits of the Woodfibre proposal to our members.

In late spring, Squamish Nation council will vote to accept or reject the proposal. Unswayed by others, we will decide our own future — by, and for, ourselves.

Ian Campbell is one of 16 hereditary chiefs of the Squamish Nation. He is currently serving his second term as an elected councillor for the Squamish Nation.

-Posted by Ryan


If you haven’t already seen whats been happening back home in Australia, the Australian government has decided from July 1, 2015, the will be shutting down 150 Aboriginal communities in Western Australia.  The communities will stop receiving basic civil rights like the rest of the country like fresh water, electricity, sewage and further basic necessities.  In turn this is a breach of Aboriginal peoples fundamental human rights, all because they are living in their homelands as they have done for millennia!  This is nothing but a land grab of Aboriginal lands in order to proceed with mining within the region!  This in effect is a blatant process of cultural genocide, where displacing those communities, they will be forced to assimilate into the metropolitan areas where carrying out their cultural practices and responsibilities are not available. The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott stated that “We cannot continue to fund remote communities lifestyle choices”, in response to Aboriginal communities, but yet the imperialistic ideologies of the Australian government in benefiting their ‘privilege’ from their stolen wealth is central to the ongoing colonisation process.  I wish I could be back home protesting and supporting my brother and sisters, but that is not possible 😦 …. so here are some links if you wish to read further about these atrocities on my peoples communities. Warraba