Straight Outta Edmonton: Levant on Fort Chip Health Concerns

Last night, Ezra Levant and Ben West of the Wilderness Committee debated the ethics of the Alberta Oilsands in front of a packed house in Vancouver. During the debate, as he also does in his book Ethical Oil, Levant dismissed the health concerns of Fort Chipewyan residents by calling Dr. John O’Connor “a liar” and “alarmist.” Levant cites the complaint brought forward against Dr. O’Connor before the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons as evidence of this. He argues that since Dr. O’Connor was found to have made “inaccurate statements” about certain cancer types being elevated, cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan as whole are not higher than expected.

Levant forcefully made the point that health concerns in Fort Chipewyan are entirely unfounded to all in attendance — including an Aboriginal man from Fort Chipewyan. The man expressed his community’s concerns (comparing Fort Chipewyan’s experience to ‘a holocaust’ — which angered many in attendance because they thought he meant THE Holocaust), which Levant responded to by calling him a “grievance monger” that brought “shame on his community” by preferring they “be on welfare than work” (the Oilsands Industry is by far the largest economic force and job creator in First Nations’ communities in Alberta). Levant attacked this man, similar to Dr. O’Connor, for making unsubstantiated public health claims and creating paranoia.

Many dismiss Fort Chipewyan’s health concerns through similar arguments, albeit through less crass means. Alastair Sweeney, Canadian historian and author makes similar statements in his book Black Bonanza, which examines the Alberta Oilsands Industry (statements he repeated in an Ottawa Citizen opinion piece earlier this year — here was my response). Further, Dr. Wadieh Yacoub, a senior medical officer for Health Canada in Alberta and one of the individuals who brought forth the medical complaint against Dr. O’Connor, has indicated in conversations that Fort Chipewyan’s alleged health concerns are questionable due to Dr. O’Connor’s actions. The Alberta Government has also publicly stated this, as well as the Federal Government.

I don’t intend to defend Dr. O’Connor, as others have. Instead, I want to examine the legitimacy of the arguments of Levant, Sweeney, and Dr. Yacoub, and whether they are valid. They argue that since Dr. O’Connor’s claims of specific cancer types were inaccurate, there are no health issues in Fort Chipewyan and concerns that upstream oilsands industrial activity are having an impact on the community’s health are unfounded.

Let us examine the 2009 health study, Cancer Incidence in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta 1996 — 2006, that found that the specific types of cancers Dr. O’Connor indicated to be at elevated were in fact at normal and expected levels. Below is the study’s conclusion, in its entirety:


The investigation has confirmed a total of two cholangiocarcinoma cases and six colon cancer cases in Fort Chipewyan over the 12-year study period (1995-2006).The observed number of cases of these two types of cancers was within the expected range of cancer occurrence of the community.

The number of cancer cases observed in Fort Chipewyan was higher than expected for all cancers combined and for specific types of cancer, such as biliary tract cancer and cancers in the blood and lymphatic system. In particular, increases were found for biliary tract cancer in men and for lung cancer in women. This increase was based on a small number of cases and could be due to chance or increased detection. The possibility that the increased rate of cancer is due to increased risk in the community, however, cannot be ruled out. An increased number of cases of biliary tract cancers, cancers in the blood and lymphatic system and cancers of unknown primary seen in the most recent six years (2001-2006) compared to the first six years (1995-2000) of the study period warrant closer monitoring of cancer occurrence in upcoming years.

Before epidemiologic studies are used to investigate the causes of the increase, further studies are required in order to evaluate the possible cancer risk posed by living in Fort Chipewyan, by tracking a cohort of residents who have lived in the area within the past 20-30 years.

Whether people living in Fort Chipewyan have an increased risk of developing cancer is still not clear. This study did not investigate the association between the risk of cancer for Fort Chipewyan residents and the effects of possible environmental exposures. Health concerns voiced by the Fort Chipewyan community, the existing evidence about the potential environmental contaminants in the area, along with an absence of a general increase in cancer rates in the comparison communities, justify further investigations that would include the analysis of many potential risk factors, such as lifestyle risk factors, family history, as well as occupational and environmental exposures. Future work on cancer investigation and control needs to be part of the overall assessment of health status in the community.

The first paragraph deals with Dr. O’Connor’s elevated cancer claims, which the study’s authors indicate to be false, and found to be “within the expected range of cancer occurrence of the community.” However, as indicated by the bolded and underlined sections, the overall number of cancer cases in Fort Chipewyan were higher than expected as well as for specific cancers, such as biliary tract cancer and blood & lymphatic system cancers.

Further, although the study did not investigate what was behind the community’s elevated cancer rates, it identified three potential factors: chance, lifestyle choices, and environmental factors. Environmental factors include upstream oilsands industrial activity, which the study’s authors justify to warrant further study due to “existing evidence about the potential environmental contaminants in the area” (a list of these studies can be found here).

The study’s conclusions are clear: cancer rates are elevated, yet the reasons behind these abnormally high rates are currently unknown, though oilsands industrial pollution may have role, along with chance and lifestyle choices. Thus, credible scientific evidence exists to suggest that cancer rates in Fort Chipweyan are elevated (as well as rates of Lupus and other auto-immune diseases) and that oilsands pollution may have a role.

What Levant, Sweeney, Dr. Yacoub, the Alberta and Federal Governments are engaging in when discrediting Fort Chipewyan’s health concerns by arguing that Dr. O’Connor’s elevated cancer claims are unsubstantiated is a classical logical fallacy where a specific inaccurate statement is used to dismiss the wider position it supports. For example:

Position: According to the National Crime Study, City A has a violent crime problem.

Proponent of the Position: City A has the highest rate of rape in the country. This confirms the National Crime Study position that City A has a violent crime problem.

Critic of Position: Proponent said that City A has the highest rate of rape in the country. This is false, because City B was found to have the highest rate of rape in the National Crime Study. Thus, City A does not have a violent crime problem.

Fallacy: City A may not have the highest rate of rape in the country, but it could have other statistics — such as the rate of murder or assault — that would lead the National Crime Study to indicate that it had a violent crime problem.

Just because Dr. O’Connor’s claims were false, it doesn’t mean that there are no health concerns in Fort Chipewyan. Indeed, Alberta Health Services indicated that cancer rates within Fort Chipewyan are 30% higher than expected and oilsands industrial pollution may play a role. Thus, even though credible scientific evidence exists to substantiate Fort Chipewyan’s health concerns, Levant and others try to downplay and dismiss them by attacking Dr. O’Connor’s credibility and characterizing Fort Chipewyan as a community of “liars” and “deadbeats.”

Clearly, this is inaccurate and an attempt to deceive readers rather than to present the whole story and debate the facts. Public health concerns exist in Fort Chipewyan, and if you believe in peer-reviewed, academic science, oilsands industrial activity may have a role. Rather than waging misinformation campaigns, attacking community members, and manipulating the public, why don’t we focus on investigating Fort Chipewyan’s health concerns and uncover what is behind the high rates of cancer, just like the AHS study recommends.

If environmental factors aren’t the cause, great, we can dispel that myth. If it is, let’s clean up the industry and curb pollution by shutting down the tailings ponds. Either way, we have an obligation to Fort Chipewyan residents — as fellow Canadians, Albertans, and human beings — to find out what’s making them sick and, if possible, stop it.

For more information on Public Health Concerns in Fort Chipewyan, please read the Edmonton Journal’s feature on the issue, the CBC Edmonton Feature: Fort Chipewyan Health Concerns, Straight Outta Edmonton’s Public Health Concerns in Fort Chipewyan, Straight Outta Edmonton’s Public Health and Environmental Studies Source List, and other posts on the issue.

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