Alberta's chief medical officer has now confirmed that statistics released a couple of weeks ago indicate there really is a cancer cluster in Fort Chipewyan, a predominantly native community about 280 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.
Fort Chip, as it is often known, has long been a subject of controversy about the health impacts of bitumen sands development because -- possibly coincidentally, and possibly not -- it is not far downstream and downwind of the largest Bitumen Sands mining and processing operations in Alberta.
Nevertheless, the Edmonton Journal reported earlier this week, the government has no plans to try to identify the possible causes of the cluster of serious diseases, which includes unusually high rates of bile duct cancer, plus some others.
So, what does this tell us?
Well, before we get to that, a caveat: I am just a layperson who notices things, often sees connections with other things, notes them down and writes about them. I am not a medical professional, a statistician or a clairvoyant. So readers are entitled to take my conclusions with as large a grain of salt as they wish. I am, as they say, just saying…
Still, now that we've got that out of the way, what does this week's news suggest?
First of all, it suggests Dr. John O'Connor, the physician who famously practiced medicine in native communities in the region, was onto something when he reported back in the mid-2000s that … wait for it … there was a cluster of unusual cancers among residents of Fort Chipewyan.
For saying this -- regardless of why he reached his conclusions -- O'Connor has been attacked in the vilest and most damaging terms imaginable, and very nearly lost his ability to practice his profession as a result.
Both the federal and provincial governments harshly criticized O'Connor for daring to suggest the Bitumen-extraction industry might have been the cause of the serious health problems he observed among residents of Fort Chip and nearby communities -- including, as he then observed and has now been confirmed, an unusually high rate of bile duct cancer.
Not only did the provincial government dispute O'Connor’s conclusions, in 2007 Health Canada physicians laid four complaints of professional misconduct against him with the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons. These included accusations he blocked access to his patients’ medical files, claims of billing irregularities, and the charge, redolent of totalitarian states, that he caused mistrust of government in Fort Chipewyan and "undue alarm" among residents of the community.
The accusations nearly resulted in O'Connor losing his license to practice medicine, and hence his livelihood. Eventually, according to the Edmonton Journal, he was cleared of all the charges against him.
This, however, has never stopped Sun News Network TV commentator and "Ethical Oil" propagandist Ezra Levant from using what we might call his national on-air bullying pulpit to launch a stream of vilification at O'Connor, calling him "a liar," accusing him of "breaching professional ethics," and saying "he just made it up."
Now, Levant doesn't have much credibility, in part because he attacks so many people in the same way -- pretty much anyone who disagrees with him, in fact. Nevertheless, he has a devoted following and many of his acolytes no doubt believe his claims about O'Connor. His accusations are influential enough, it is said here, to make others with similar observations afraid to speak their minds.
Indeed, Dr. Margaret Sears, an Ontario expert in toxicology and health, told the Edmonton Journal doctors in the region were afraid of the negative consequences to their careers if they spoke out, or even were asked to treat patients who thought their might be a connection between their symptoms and nearby bitumen production.
She was not referring specifically to Levant's on-air jeremiads, but it is not unreasonable to conclude just such an outcome was in fact the intention of the broadcaster’s on-air bullying. For, as has been noted in this space before, Levant is closely tied to both the petroleum industry in Alberta, through his so-called "Ethical Oil Institute," and with the petro-government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
In a useful piece of work published earlier this week, Greenpeace Canada charted the connections among Levant's so-called institute, the Harper Conservative Party, provincial versions of the same party and their energy industry patrons.
Greenpeace made headlines by calling for Elections Canada to investigate Ethical Oil for "colluding with the Conservative Party in order to get around rules that limit donations to political parties."
Such a probe is of course unlikely because Elections Canada is already under attack from the Harper Conservatives for protecting the democratic rights of Canadians too effectively. But with that story in the news, mainstream media took notice when Greenpeace identified the frequent "mirrored messaging" between Ethical Oil and the CPC and the "multiple crossovers" among Harper Government staffers and Ethical Oil.
"Greenpeace argues election financing laws are breached even if a third party -- in this case Ethical Oil -- does not directly transfer money to a political party," the CBC reported. "Greenpeace is urging the commissioner of elections to find that if Ethical Oil spends funds it raises on activities supporting a political party's agenda, and has been set up by someone involved in the political party, then political donation limits have been contravened."
"Our laws still ban oil companies from directly or indirectly funding political parties, so we hope that Ethical Oil and the Conservative Party will cooperate with the Commissioner in an investigation to clear this up," Greenpeace said in its news release -- no doubt rhetorically, given the uncooperative history of the CPC on such matters.
An effective info-graphic created by Greenpeace illustrates the connections among the CPC, Ethical Oil and their mutual operatives, including Levant, on this propaganda campaign.
Which brings us back to the Fort Chip cancer cluster.
"If anybody crunches the numbers for Fort Chipewyan, no matter how they are massaged, they wouldn't show anything but a cancer cluster," the Journal quoted University of Calgary professor John Dennis as saying this week. "It's a huge red flag," said the researcher, who conducted a review of the previous study at the government's behest.
Dr. James Talbot, Alberta's Chief Medical Officer of Health, told the same newspaper, in its reporter’s words, that "updated figures for bile-duct cancer in the northern community fit the definition of a cluster, as does the rate of cervical cancer. The lung-cancer rate comes very close."
Of course, there could be many causes for the disease cluster -- including lifestyle choices in an impoverished community. But it's an interesting series of events just the same, isn’t it?
- A physician has his character viciously attacked by a right-wing broadcaster linked to the Conservative federal government and the oil industry for suggesting there was a cluster of diseases in a community in a bitumen-extraction region.
- A petroleum industry advocacy organization run by the same broadcaster is accused of breaching election laws to help the same government remain in power. Whether or not the group’s activities actually broke the law, the same group of right-wing activists are demonstrably involved in both campaigns.
- Another study by other doctors shows the physician's observations all those years ago were likely right, and yet a provincial government run by followers of the same ideology refuses to launch an investigation to find out what’s really causing the health problems.
Whatever can it all mean?
Could someone be afraid of the answers a credible study might reveal?
Did someone ask: "Will no one rid me of this turbulent doc?"
Is there an effort to keep a lid of science that might impact petroleum industry profits?
I'm not saying. I'm just asking.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.
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