Fort Chip chiefs cancel health meeting with Alberta

Fort Chip chiefs cancel health meeting with Alberta
Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam speaks about the impacts of oilsands development on his community during last year’s Tar Sands Healing Walk.Photo: Meagan Wohlberg.

With testimonies of oilsands-related illness echoing off US Senate chamber walls last week in Washington, DC, a meeting between First Nations and the Alberta government intended to discuss new statistics on cancer rates in the community of Fort Chipewyan was cancelled due to further conflict.

The Mikisew Cree First Nation, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) and the Nunee Health Authority cancelled their meeting with Alberta Chief Medical Officer Dr. James Talbot, scheduled for last Thursday evening, after the province refused to provide its new report ahead of time.

The highly anticipated findings, which the community has been waiting for since 2009, were supposed to provide updated statistics on cancer rates in the community.

Previous data compiled in 2009 by the Alberta Cancer Board indicated rates of certain rare types of cancers were 30 per cent above normal in the primarily Aboriginal community, located downstream from the oilsands industry on Lake Athabasca.

ACFN Chief Allan Adam expressed his frustration with Alberta’s unwillingness to provide the data ahead of time.

“I basically just told them I don’t want their report,” Adam told The Journal on Thursday. “If they’re not going to give us the report, I said just keep it.”

Talbot cancelled his plans to visit the community and Alberta Health has not confirmed whether or not it is to be rescheduled, but Adam said he would not be attending regardless.

“I’m not even going to bother going to the meeting when they have it,” he said. “What good is their information going to do us when we know for a fact what’s happening in our community? It doesn’t change my opinion in regards to what’s going on.”

Adam said ACFN would be discussing, as did Mikisew previously, launching its own health study next week.

The chiefs had wanted access to the information ahead of time so it could be reviewed and prepare people to ask questions during the sneak peek presentation planned for Thursday evening before the official report is made public in March.

“If there was anything we wanted to clarify, we’d be prepared,” Adam said.

He said the government would not budge.

“They said they wanted to meet with us in person to give us the report and address some of the answers there,” he said.

Alberta Health did not respond to requests for comment.

Doctor testifies before US Senate

The conflict back in Fort Chipewyan arose as doctors and other witnesses gave testimony before the US Senate in Washington last week, claiming the oilsands industry is making people sick and the Alberta government is doing nothing to stop it.

Dr. John O’Connor, formerly a physician in Fort Chipewyan, told senators that the Canadian and Alberta governments are complicit in health impacts being faced by residents, which include statistics of rare cancers 400 times above what would be considered normal for such a small community.

He said there have been several cases of bile duct cancer over the last decade in the town of 1,100, though the disease usually impacts fewer than one in 200,000 people. He also cited a new study that shows leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma have skyrocketed in the past decade, especially among men downwind of oil and gas facilities.

The Alberta government has denied the links to industry, claiming that there is “insufficient evidence” to draw ties between cancer in Fort Chipewyan and oilsands operations. Alberta Health’s website states rates of cancer are “within the expected range.”

“These are published, peer-reviewed studies that indicate the government of Alberta and Canada have been lying, misrepresenting the impact of industry on the environment,” O’Connor said.

The doctor was invited to speak to the Senate as it considers TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport bitumen from the oilsands to Texas.

The testimony follows recent hearings in the Peace River area, which heard from numerous residents that emissions coming from in situ oilsands production were the believed cause of health issues that forced several families from the area.

During those hearings, patients said their doctors refused to point fingers at industry, with one physician telling mother Karla Labrecque, whose family is engaged in a lawsuit against Baytex Energy because of the emissions, to “just move” rather than take on the industry.

“This is an ongoing tragedy,” O’Connor said.

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