Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Former Fort Chip doctor calls for tar sands slowdown

Former Fort Chip doctor calls for oilsands slowdown
Last Updated: Monday, March 9, 2009
CBC News

Dr. John O'Connor, shown here in Edmonton Sunday, is featured in Downstream, a documentary by American filmmaker Leslie Iwerks. Dr. John O'Connor, shown here in Edmonton Sunday, is featured in Downstream, a documentary by American filmmaker Leslie Iwerks. (CBC)

The doctor who first raised concerns about cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan, Alta., three years ago — and became the target of a professional complaint — said on Sunday he'd do it all again.

Dr. John O'Connor, the former medical examiner and community physician who left Fort Chipewyan two years ago to practise in Nova Scotia, was in Edmonton for a screening of a documentary about the effects of the oilsands on the northern Alberta community.

"I think it's very strong and it's very honest," O'Connor said after seeing U.S. filmmaker Leslie Iwerks's Downstream, in which he figures prominently.

"It's not, you know, a biting condemnation of anybody. It's just life as it is."

O'Connor drew international attention in 2006 by going public with calls for Alberta Health to study the cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan, a community of 1,200, and to investigate what link they might have to oilsands development upstream.

The province did that last year, but not before releasing a study that downplayed the cancer concerns in 2006.

The new report, released in February, found cancer rates were higher than expected and recommended more analysis into what might be the causes.

While O'Connor was eventually vindicated, he went through professional turmoil for his outspokenness.

At one point, some Health Canada officials filed a complaint against him with the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons, saying he was causing "undue alarm" by going public with his concerns. That complaint still has not been resolved.

However, the Alberta Medical Association rallied behind O'Connor's efforts, passing a unanimous motion of support in March 2007.

O'Connor's frustrations led him to leave Alberta two years ago to practice in Nova Scotia.
'Put the brakes on'

But when asked if he would do it all over again, O'Connor said there was no question.

"I wouldn't be true to myself as any other health-care professional in my position would have been, you know, if I didn't follow through with it," he said.

At a discussion after the screening, O'Connor called on industry and the province to slow down the pace of development.

"Put the brakes on. Slow down. Enforce environmental laws. Get rid of the tailings ponds. Do things in a clean fashion and just do the right thing by Fort Chip," he said.

On Friday, Downstream was screened to a crowd of nearly 300 people in Fort Chipewyan.

"People really have tremendous amount of respect for Dr. O'Connor," said George Poitras, former chief of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, adding that O'Connor's actions forced the government to conduct the second cancer study.

"It's vindicating, not only the cancer study but the film as well, to help us to continue to generate support for Fort Chipewyan," Poitras said.

Last fall, Downstream was on the shortlist for an Academy Award nomination, but didn't make the final cut when the nominees were announced earlier this year.


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