Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

In Alberta, dissenters are just asking for a smack-down

In Alberta, dissenters are just asking for a smack-down

Prominent scientists, doctors, leaders attacked for speaking out

By David Thompson, Edmonton Journal November 15, 2010

Dr. Paul Parks finally got the Alberta government to address his concerns about a potential "catastrophic collapse" of emergency care.

However, it took the media's bright spotlight to make it happen.

Parks had been quietly raising the issue with the government since early 2008, when he began documenting serious problems in emergency wards.

But that didn't get the government to act.

Nor did the efforts of Dr. Felix Soibelman, president of the Edmonton Emergency Physicians Association, who lobbied for 10 years to move seniors out of emergency wards and into appropriate care.

No, the government's response only came after Parks headed to the media with a copy of a letter he had written to Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky and Alberta Health Services brass two weeks earlier.

Now the government is listening.

But whistleblowers in Alberta face more than being ignored -- much more. Remember the 2007 Energy and Utilities Board spying scandal, in which that government agency hired spies to infiltrate a landowners organization?

More recently, in 2009, Peter Lee and Dr. Kevin Timoney published a scientific report that dared suggest that "physical and ecological changes that result from oilsands industrial activities" are "detectable." Hard to believe anyone would disagree, but a section head at Alberta Environment accused them of lying and fudging the data -- an action that resulted in a retraction and an apology from attorney general's office.

Of course, Timoney and Lee aren't the only Albertans who have been attacked for speaking out.

Consider Kevin Taft and David Swann, former and current leaders of the Alberta Liberals. Before entering politics, Taft wrote a study for the Alberta government, which it found quite inconvenient and promptly shredded (all copies). When he went on to write a book about Premier Ralph Klein's cuts -- Shredding the Public Interest -- the premier labelled him a "communist."

As for Swann, before being elected he had been medical officer of health in Palliser Health Region. He spoke out about climate change. He was fired.

For several years, Dr. John O'Connor raised flags about unusual cancers in Fort Chipewyan, downstream of the oilsands industry. The Alberta government consistently denied that cancer rates were elevated, while Alberta government employees quietly "assisted" Health Canada in pursuing charges against O'Connor at the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons.

The college rejected all charges against Dr. O'Connor, including an ominous-sounding one: "engendering a sense of mistrust in government." The Alberta Cancer Board ultimately released a study confirming higher-than-expected levels of rare cancers and recommended a monitoring program.

Seeing a pattern?

A couple of months ago, eminent ecologist David Schindler, who has an Order of Canada among his 100-plus awards, co-authored a report in the highly respected Proceedings of the National Academies of Science. This report pointed out that detectable levels of toxic substances are being emitted from oilsands operations. Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner immediately dismissed the report, without reading it -- saying the contaminants were due to natural causes. Energy Minister Ron Liepert's sound bite: "If you look back at the work that (Schindler) has done in the past, I'm not surprised that this was the result."

Premier Ed Stelmach, however, was careful not to rashly dismiss top-notch science. He was smart enough to see the building media scrutiny.

Soon after came eye-catching media coverage of deformed and diseased fish caught downstream of the oilsands industry. And of course the visits of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and three American senators. By the time Avatar director James Cameron held a news conference with First Nations chiefs, there was an avalanche of oilsands coverage.

The media buildup changed the mainstream narrative and resulted in a hasty reversal of government policy -- from denying science and defaming scientists, to very quickly setting up a provincial review of monitoring in the Athabasca River. The only thing moving faster that week was the federal environment minister, Jim Prentice, who managed to set up a federal review panel first.

It's a commonplace that one-party states don't especially value dissent. Look up Thomas Friedman's First Law of Petro-politics And it's clear that calling on government to do the right thing in Alberta can lead to a smackdown.

However, it's equally clear that going to the media with a compelling story and making it stick can result in government changing course. This is the media's role -- to illuminate government decisions and enable the public to see what is happening.

As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis remarked, "sunlight is the best disinfectant."

David Thompson is an Edmontonbased independent public policy analyst and president of PolicyLink Research and Consulting.
© Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal


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