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Alberta Health Board Fires Doctor Who Raised Cancer Alarms

'I am stunned,' says Dr. John O'Connor, a veteran presence in First Nations community.

Andrew Nikiforuk 11 May

Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

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An Alberta health board has fired Dr. John O'Connor, the physician who came to national prominence after raising questions about rare cancers in the tarsands region.

The Nunee Health Board Society send O'Connor a letter last Friday saying it no longer required his professional services.

The letter gives no reason why. "I am stunned. It is indescribable. This severing of links, with no reason," O'Connor told the Tyee.

Since 2000, O'Connor has served as the on-call physician for the remote community of Fort Chipewyan, as well as physician back-up for the community's nursing station.

Between 2000 and 2007, O'Connor also flew into the community two days a week for in-person consultations.

The Nunee Health Board Society represents the health interests of the small aboriginal community to all levels of government. The board did not respond to a request for comment sent this morning.

O'Connor, an Irish-born physician, came to prominence in 2006 when he raised concerns about a string of rare bile duct cancers and other unusual disorders such as lupus and renal failure that appeared in patients from Fort Chipewyan, which is located 300 kilometres downstream from the tarsands.

Pressed for long-term studies

The bile duct cancer cholangiocarcimona normally appears in one in 200,000 people. In the space of nine years, O'Connor recorded approximately four cases in the region, which has a population of around 1,500.

Scientists don't know much about the cancer, but suspect it is related to exposure to industrial toxins in water such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a common bitumen pollutant.

As a consequence of the findings, the physician asked for a long-term cancer study. The provincial government initially refused, and then did a study that only catalogued recent deaths. O'Connor then took his concerns to the international press.

"Where is this cancer coming from?" asked O'Connor at the time. "I'm not saying stop the oilsands. I'm just asking questions."

In 2007, members of Health Canada and the Alberta Cancer Board, assisted by Alberta Health, charged O'Connor before the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons with causing "undue alarm" among the public and the people of Fort Chipewyan about environmental pollution in the region. The bureaucrats also accused O'Connor of over-billing and "irresponsible practices."

After years of delays, a 2009 Alberta Cancer Board study found that the northern community had a 30 per cent higher cancer rate than public health models would predict, and a higher than expected rate of cancers of the blood and lymphatic tissue, as well as bile duct cancers. The community expressed concerns that the study was not comprehensive enough.

In 2009, the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons absolved O'Connor of wrongdoing. 

Would return 'in a heartbeat'

Since then, more cases of rare bile duct cancer have appeared in the region. In 2014, John Chadi, a former councillor for Fort Chipewyan, was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma. Last March, a 58-year-old aboriginal woman died of the disease.

O'Connor said he remains committed to the people of Fort Chipewyan and still wants to see a comprehensive health study done for the region.

"I have a close relationship with the community. Whenever we meet, it's not handshakes but hugs we exchange. I'd return as the on-call physician in a heartbeat, now with conditions. The first one would be transparency, which doesn't appear to exist at the level of the [health board]."

O'Connor still serves as health director for the community of Fort McKay First Nation.

"I am at a huge loss to explain this," he said. "The staff at the nursing station are furious. They were given no advance warning. I feel like I've lost a family member."

Dr. Esther Tailfeathers, who had worked in Fort Chipewyan for the last three years, abruptly left her job last month with no explanation.

Full disclosure: In 2009, Dr. John O'Connor and Andrew Nikiforuk travelled to Norway at the invitation of Greenpeace to encourage a national debate in Norway about that nation's tarsands investments.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Environment

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