He's one of Alberta's most famous whistleblowers, but a new report casts doubt on Dr. John O'Connor's crusade to expose unusually high rare cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan, a small community downstream from the province's massive oil sands.
The Globe and Mail has obtained the findings of a lengthy investigation by Alberta's College of Physicians and Surgeons into Dr. O'Connor's claims that attracted international media attention after he went public in 2006.
The 13-page report found many of Dr. O'Connor's public statements about his medical claims and the college's subsequent investigation were "inaccurate" and "untruthful."
The probe also concluded he "obstructed" efforts by the Alberta Cancer Board and Health Canada to investigate his claims by defying the law and ignoring repeated requests to turn over his clinical evidence in a "timely manner."
According to the report, when Dr. O'Connor finally co-operated with public health officials after stalling for close to two years, many of his numbers didn't match up with what he had been saying publicly, including that five Fort Chipewyan residents suffered from a rare bile-duct cancer.
In the end, researchers could verify only two cases.
Earlier this year, the Alberta Cancer Board released a report that found elevated cancer cases in Fort Chipewyan over the 1995 to 2006 study period. While public health officials found many of Dr. O'Connor's numbers to be wrong, the cancer board discovered 51 cancers in 47 individuals, compared with 39 cancers expected.
Dr. Tony Fields, an Alberta Health Services vice-president, told reporters the findings would be studied further but there was no reason for alarm among the community of about 1,200 mainly aboriginal residents, which is located 700 kilometres north of Edmonton.
The college can't legally comment on the report, which was completed earlier this month, unless both parties involved, Dr. O'Connor, and three doctors from Health Canada who requested the investigation into his conduct in January, 2007, allow them to. The Health Canada doctors agreed to the condition, but, according to sources, Dr. O'Connor didn't.
Dr. O'Connor, who now practices medicine in Nova Scotia, spoke with at least two media outlets in Alberta on Friday and said the college's report was complete and it had "removed a big monkey" off his back.
"There are no more complaints and I am in good standing with the college," he told the Edmonton Journal.
The Globe called Dr. O'Connor Sunday, but he hung up after the reporter asked to talk about the college's findings. He then didn't return calls.
Since making his claims, Dr. O'Connor has become a respected anti-oil-sands advocate, and was even the focus of a documentary called Downstream that was short-listed for an Oscar earlier this year.
The college's report, which couldn't "prove or disprove" allegations Dr. O'Connor's public statements "harmed" Fort Chipewyan residents and hurt the credibility of federal and provincial public health officials, ultimately concluded punishing Dr. O'Connor wouldn't serve the "public interest."
However, it does state the "preferred resolution" would be for the case's facts to be released so the public record can be corrected. "The message that Dr. O'Connor and others may take from this review is the need for advocacy to be fair, truthful, balanced and respectful," the report stated.
Dr. Hakique Virani, one of the three Health Canada doctors involved with the original complaint, is pleased with the investigation's findings.
Since it was launched, many Fort Chipewyan residents, who have feared for years that pollution from the oil sands may be making them sick, have sided with Dr. O'Connor and accused public health officials of being out to destroy his reputation and career. Aboriginal groups and environmentalists also called the college's probe a witch hunt.
"We did what we did because it was the only ethical thing to do," Dr. Virani said.