Wolves Scapegoated While Alberta Government Sells Off Endangered Caribou Habitat

http://www.desmog.ca/2015/04/08/wolves-scapegoated-while-alberta-sells-off-endangered-caribou-habitat

Culling Alberta’s wolves without prioritizing caribou habitat protection and restoration is like “shoveling sand,” according to Mark Hebblewhite, associate professor of ungulate habitat biology at the University of Montana.

Hebblewhite says the Alberta government is sponsoring awolf cull without doing the one thing that could possibly scientifically justify it: conserving and restoring critical caribou habitat.

That’s the tragedy here: the Alberta government blew the opportunity to do the right thing,” he said.

It’s all shoveling sand without real commitment to habitat conservation.”

Scientists have warned of Alberta’s caribou losses for decades and in recent years have argued the majority of the herds are endangered with some facing an imminent risk of local extinction. Provinces have until 2017 to formulate provincial caribou recovery plans under the new federal caribou recovery strategy released in 2012.

The goal for each province is to maintain 65 per cent undisturbed habitat in all caribou ranges, according to Duncan MacDonnell, public affairs officer for Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD).

It is ESRD’s responsibility to implement recovery plans,” for Alberta, MacDonnell said, adding that since 2004 the province has had a wolf cull in place “to hold the line while the habitat recovery plans take place and are implemented.”

Since 2006 more than 1,000 wolves have been shot in the Little Smokey and A La Peche caribou ranges.

The province’s use of predator management has generated serious controversy, especially in light ofcontinuing sales of oil and gas leases in caribou ranges, a move experts say undermines the scientific integrity of the wolf cull.

There are all kinds of ethical problems in this mess,” Hebblewhite told DeSmog Canada.

It’s unethical to sell oil and gas leases in endangered caribou critical habitat.”

Hebblewhite recently published a paper, Managing Wolves to Recover Threatened Woodland Caribou in Alberta, that demonstrated the wolf cull in the Little Smoky and A La Peche regions helped stabilize local caribou herds, but won’t contribute to their long-term survival without habitat recovery and protection.

If we had started killing wolves 10 years ago, stopped all development, and started restoration, we might actually be somewhere,” he said.

Hebblewhite is preparing to release additional research that shows that since the release of the federal recovery strategy, the federal and provincial governments have allowed significant oil and gas activity to continue in caribou ranges.

This is where it is most egregious: on the one hand, the Alberta government is saying they are doing habitat conservation while on the other I have proprietary oil and gas industry data that shows there have been hundreds of wells drilled in the Little Smoky herd, and 1,500 wells drilled in the Cold Lake herd range on the border with Saskatchewan. And that herd is the second most rapidly declining herd in the country.”

And this is just since 2012 when the federal caribou recovery plan, including the delineation of critical habitat, was adopted,” he said.

We are still destroying caribou habitat…it shows quite clearly that we’re killing wolves and we are not doing anything to recover caribou or the boreal forest.”

Habitat Destruction, Seismic Lines a Costly Lack of Foresight

Oilsands companies are in a “mad rush” to restore seismic lines in Alberta’s caribou ranges before the province reveals its caribou recovery plan — mandated under the Federal Caribou Recovery Strategy — by 2017.

With tens of thousands of kilometres of seismic lines, their restoration is critical for reducing the mobility of wolves in caribou ranges.

Scott Nielsen, a University of Alberta professor who is studying seismic line restoration, said now that restoration on these legacy lines is happening, industry should work with scientists to ensure it’s done right. At a cost of roughly $10,000 per kilometre Nielsen says prioritizing the most critical areas for caribou and other species is critical.

A lot of companies are grouping together and doing restoration projects, but if each company is doing a little bit here and a little bit there, the scale at which the disturbances occur at and the scale at which caribou and wolves move at are big. We need to think big when we’re thinking of the restoration or the offsets.”

It would be even better if the work could be coordinated from the stand point of objectively trying to identify areas with the best bang for our buck both from the perspective of biodiversity and cost benefits,” he said.

And now, Nielsen said, even with aggressive restoration in place, “from a caribou perspective there has to be some form of zoning or restriction in development for at least certain herds for them to persist.”

But the government of Alberta, in lieu of enforcing habitat protection — which would require limiting new leasing for oil and gas companies — has relied on predator control as a means to keep caribou herds alive.

Predator control, Nielsen said, “tends to be a favourite tool used when you’re desperate and you have a population or a species that is critically endangered and threatened.”

The wolf cull is “one tool the managers are using for a short-term solution,” Nielsen said. “And if they aren’t working towards a long-term solution then it should be abandoned.”

Real Issue is Habitat Conservation

For Raincoast Conservation Foundation biologist and wolf expert Paul Paquet, the continued destruction of caribou habitat demonstrates the Alberta government is working at cross-purposes.

The whole issue around oil and gas leases is it shows the government working at cross-purposes,” Paquet said. “I think it undermines their credibility.”

He added the negative effects of unrestored seismic lines on caribou habitat has been known for decades, but both government and industry have failed to take meaningful action.

They don’t seem intent on doing what needs to be done,” Paquet said, adding the failure to protect caribou habitat throws the province’s ongoing wolf cull into a “moral dilemma.”

Research recently published by Hebblewhite and his colleagues shows that while the killing of wolves in some areas has stabilized populations, aggressive predator control was unable to put caribou back on a path to self-sustaining populations.

All of this is useless if the primary reasons for caribou decline isn’t addressed and that primary one now is loss of habitat and degraded habitat,” Paquet said.

Hebblewhite agrees.

Predator control “has to be against the template of real commitment to habitat conservation. But if we’re just doing it in small little parts of the habitat and destroying other parts, it’s probably not going to have a very good effect.”

The wolf cull “reminds us we’ve screwed up the entire ecosystem,” Hebblewhite said. “Killing wolves is a short-term response to that. It buys us time.”

Image Credit: John E. Marriott

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City of Vancouver calling it an “oil spill,” Vancouver Aquarium concerned

Photo via twitter by Mike Groat

Cleanup workers are at English Bay today, responding to reports of an oily sheen coating the water on the east side of the bay at about 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre is closely monitoring developments around the overnight spill of bunker fuel in English Bay, a press release said. “The immediate concern is whether the spill will affect aquatic species that live at or around the water’s surface, in the water column, or in the sediments. Vancouver Aquarium has offered its assistance with the monitoring and evaluation, and is preparing a rapid response team to ensure the protection of any fish, seabirds and/or marine mammals that might be at risk from this toxic spill.”

Port Metro Vancouver received multiple reports about the spill before calling in the coast guard.

The spill is suspected to be bunker fuel, leaking from a nearby cargo ship.

Investigation and clean up efforts are expected to continue into Thursday.

The size and scope of the spill have not been specified.

The City of Vancouver is holding a press briefing soon.

Justice for Cindy Gladue

All across these lands, in almost twenty cities and communities, there will be rallies on Thursday April 2 to honour Cindy Gladue’s life and to demand justice for her with a specific call for a re-trial (please see below).

Cindy Gladue was a 36-year old Indigenous mother of two who was murdered by Bradley Barton in an Edmonton motel room four years ago. Last week, an almost all-white and all-male jury decided to acquit her killer, a white Ontario man, because they believed that Cindy had consented to the violence that caused her to bleed to death. This verdict represents a larger ongoing pattern of colonial gendered violence.

Earlier this month, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) concluded that Canada, “has failed to ensure that Aboriginal women are protected against discrimination committed by public institutions.”

And in December of 2014 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights stated, “disappearances and murders of indigenous women in Canada are part of a broader pattern of violence and discrimination against indigenous women in Canada.”

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is visiting BC this month and the previous UN Special Rapporteur Dr. Anaya stated that “indigenous women and girls remain vulnerable to abuse” due to complex and intersecting historical and present issues stemming from the impacts of colonialism. Dr. Anaya noted the disproportionately high rate that Indigenous women and girls are victims of violent crime, and that “since 1996, there have been at least 29 official inquiries and reports dealing with aspects of this issue, which have made over 500 recommendations for action.”

We demand justice for Cindy Gladue and all missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Thank you for joining us,
Feb 14th Women’s Memorial March Committee.

* IF YOU ARE UNABLE TO JOIN *

If you are unable to join us, but want to show your support, you can sign the petition at https://www.change.org/p/honourable-jonathan-denis-qc-mla-minister-of-justice-and-solicitor-general-initiate-an-appeal-of-justice-for-cindy-gladue

We also call on you to join in the push for a retrial. Crown Prosecutor Carole Godfrey has only one month to initiate an appeal for a retrial.

Respectfully request that the prosecutor initiate an appeal to retry Bradley Barton for the original charges of second-degree murder, based on the extensive biases and mistreatment that are clear in our article and numerous other media articles:

Crown Prosecutor Carole Godfrey
6th Floor, J.E. Brownlee Building
10365 – 97th Street
Edmonton, AB T5J 3W7
Telephone: 780-422-1111
Fax: 780-422-9756
E-mail: edmontonprosecutions@gov.ab.ca

Write to Alberta Justice Minister and Solicitor General Jonathan Denis, who would have to approve the call for an appeal:

Honourable Jonathan Denis QC MLA
Minister of Justice and Solicitor General
3rd floor, Bowker Building, 9833 – 109 Street.
Edmonton, Alberta, T5K 2E8
Phone: 780-427-2339
Fax: 780-422-6621
Email: ministryofjustice@gov.ab.ca

(Write and call-in information via Naomi Sayers and Sarah Hunt, image credit Angela Sterritt)

There will be a vigil and rally seeking justice for Cindy Gladue this Thursday, April 2, at 10:30 am, at the Supreme Court of BC (800 Hornby St.), in Vancouver, organized by the February  14th Women’s Memorial March Committee. Please see the attached poster and hope to see you there.

Here is the Facebook event page: https://m.facebook.com/events/446813728815761/?ref=m_notif&notif_t=plan_user_joined

Background (set out on FB event page):

IMG_3770

* Additional Events

Justice For Cindy Gladue – Algonquin Territory, Ottawa:https://www.facebook.com/events/659410977496946/

Justice For Cindy Gladue – Edmonton: https://www.facebook.com/events/419958091508690/

Justice and Vigil for Cindy Gladue Calgary/Treaty 7/Blackfoot Confederacy:https://www.facebook.com/events/1501176266769571/

Justice for Cindy Gladue – Victoria, on Lkwungen territories: https://www.facebook.com/events/1606587266225135/

Justice for Cindy Gladue – Saskatoon: https://www.facebook.com/events/1411748372467390/

Justice For Cindy Gladue – Regina: https://www.facebook.com/events/1578080472462451/

Justice for Cindy Gladue – St. John’s, NLhttps://www.facebook.com/events/516826465122931/

Justice for Cindy Gladue – Kenora/Treaty 3https://www.facebook.com/events/682805831848855/

Justice and Vigil for Cindy Gladue Treaty 1 Solidarity ActionWinnipeg: https://www.facebook.com/events/614292468672452/

No Justice No Peace – Honouring Cindy Gladue –Toronto: https://www.facebook.com/events/1592063801041473/

Justice for Cindy Gladue, an event in Nogojiwanong (Peterborough)https://www.facebook.com/events/357892087750793/

Justice for Cindy Gladue – Lac La Biche, Albertahttps://www.facebook.com/events/897332023620446/

Justice for Cindy Gladue- Treaty 7 Blackfoot Territory, Lethbridge, Alberta: https://www.facebook.com/events/934387869934355/

Justice for Cindy Gladue –Saskatoon Art-In: https://www.facebook.com/events/692227500888667/

Justice for Cindy Gladue – St. Paul andArea: https://www.facebook.com/events/716924471749736/

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 Change.org – 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

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

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.

-30-

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.