Last month, a crusading Canadian doctor named John O’Connor appeared at a hearing in Washington to warn about the deadly effects of the oil sands. Environmental toxins leaking into the water and the food chain are causing elevated rates of cancer in local communities, he insisted. He told reporters he is trying to shine a light on the “callous indifference” toward the health of those who live downstream from the oil sands. He got a warm reception from Barbara Boxer, an anti-Keystone senator who warned that a new pipeline full of dirty oil would put Americans at risk too. “How are more Americans with cancer in the national interest?” she asked.
Dr. O’Connor once practised medicine in Fort Chipewyan, Alta., a predominantly aboriginal community on the edge of Lake Athabasca. About a decade ago, he began claiming that the residents were suffering from a high rate of unusual cancers. Celebrity quickly ensued. Today, the people who live in Fort Chip are convinced they are being poisoned, and their community has become the leading example of the oil sands’ harmful health effects. Environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council claim that Fort Chip’s cancer rate is 30 per cent higher than normal.
The good news (or bad news, depending on your point of view) is that it simply isn’t true.
On Monday, Alberta’s chief medical officer, Dr. James Talbot, released a long-awaited report concluding that cancer rates in Fort Chip are normal. The report counted the number of cancers found in Fort Chipewyan between 1992 and 2011. Based on its population of about 1,100, the expected number would be 79. The actual number was 81. Three specific cancers appeared at slightly higher rates than normal: bile-duct cancer (three cases), cervical cancer (four cases) and lung cancer among women (eight cases). Of these, none is linked to environmental pollutants. “Overall cancer rates are what would be expected in the region,” Dr. Talbot said.
Over the years, Dr. O’Connor’s sensational claims have been repeatedly discredited. But activist groups, and many in the media, have preferred his version. He’s widely regarded as a courageous whistle-blower who isn’t afraid to speak truth to power. He was a leading character in the documentary Tipping Point, an anti-oil sands screed that aired (twice) on CBC’s The Nature of Things, narrated by David Suzuki. The film shows images of deformed fish and wrenching interviews with Fort Chip residents, posing with framed photos of loved ones who’ve died of brain tumours.
Because of Dr. O’Connor, Fort Chipewyan is being championed by superstars such as Hollywood director James Cameron and singer Neil Young, who have pledged money to help in their legal battles against various levels of government. “The Indians up there and the native peoples” are “sick and dying of cancer,” Mr. Young said last year. Mr. Cameron has likened them to the fictional Na’vi in his film Avatar – indigenous victims of ruthless and technically superior outsiders who want to wipe them out.
When facts battle emotion, emotion usually wins. So it’s been with the Fort Chip cancer scare. In 2009, a limited analysis by Alberta Health Services found that the community had a slightly elevated rate of cancer, but that it was “not huge” and there was no reason for alarm. Later that year, a lengthy investigation by the province’s College of Physicians and Surgeons found that many of Dr. O’Connor’s public statements were “inaccurate” and “untruthful,” and that he had “obstructed” efforts to investigate his claims. Aboriginal groups and environmentalists called the probe a witch hunt. In 2010, a Royal Society of Canada report concluded that “there is currently no credible evidence” that environmental contaminants were reaching the community at levels that could be connected to elevated cancer rates. It called for further monitoring.
The new study hasn’t reassured the local population. Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation refused to meet with health officials, and dismissed the findings as a whitewash. “Although the report states that cancer is not higher than expected, we can’t argue the fact that people are getting sick and people are getting cancers,” he said in a news release.
In fact, there are a lot of reasons to sympathize with the people of Fort Chip. They have more than enough legitimate health problems, including diabetes, obesity, high rates of smoking and the other ills that plague indigenous communities. Their traditional way of life is indeed under threat from all the forces of modernity. And they really are being exploited by wealthy outsiders who ignore the truth. The question is, which ones?