Photo: Standing on Guard

The evidence is mounting: industrial development of the tar sands is linked to the health of the people in Fort McMurray and Fort Chipewyan (Credit: Rainforest Action Network via Flickr).

By John O'Connor, MD

I have vivid memories from my school years in Ireland of our geography teacher Mr. Crowe's stories about travelling across Canada. He always appeared to drift into some kind of rapture as he described the experience. His eyes revealed how much he enjoyed and missed the vastness of the Prairies with their rolling, wind-blown wheat fields that went on forever. His descriptions of the crystal-clear rivers, enormous forests, cloudless skies, and sweet air conjured up images that were as sharp as if it he'd had a projector in the classroom. He often referred to how clean the country was. Ireland in those days was not very clean. I vowed to some day confirm his claims in person. Not that I doubted Mr. Crowe. He seemed to be in touch with the world, our link to places we had only read about.

But since coming to Canada, I've seen a different picture — at least in Northern Alberta.

In my capacity as a family physician, I began making regular visits from Fort McMurray to Fort Chipewyan in the early 2000s. This First Nations community is situated in northeastern Alberta, on the northern shore of Lake Athabasca, an hour's flight north from Fort McMurray and downstream of the Athabasca tar sands.

In an idyllic setting, the 1,200 residents occupy the oldest settlement in Alberta, with "fly-in" (or "boat-in"!) access for 10 months of the year. The area is picturesque, on the edge of the Canadian Shield. About 80 per cent of the people rely on traditional foods, as they have for generations. Fish from the Athabasca Lake and River is a staple of most family's diets. These waters are vital to the community, for food, transportation and recreation. The people can trace back their roots 12,000 years.

As I got to know the community, and they me, the elders began to describe vividly the changes they'd noticed in their environment over the previous 15 or 20 years, and especially in their beloved lake and river. The water, once sweet to drink, scooped up in cups as they fished, was now "bad", with a constant film and taste of oil. Deformed fish were being caught in alarmingly increasing numbers, and small animal and rodent populations were dying off. Even the flesh of the ducks they hunted was becoming inedible, when they could find them to hunt.

My concern grew as I documented increasing cases of cancer, among them rare types, that one should not expect to see in such a small community, and especially one so traditional.

Could all this be due to bad luck, genetics or lifestyle, or could there be a connection with what the elders had observed with environmental changes?

Could it be at all connected with the large industrial development upstream on the Athabasca, the tar sands?

The sights and smells of the dying and dead boreal forest, a third bigger than Ireland, defy description. As if the land is haemorrhaging, the Athabasca River is a dark and threatening carrier of deformed fish, and, many close to the land suspect, much worse. There is no sweet air, as the signs asking travellers to report "bad odours" remind you. And the most peculiar coloured clouds I have ever seen often block out the blue sky.

Worst of all is that people downstream of the tar sands are falling ill and dying. Mounting evidence, and the opinion of many we should listen carefully to, suggests that mining of the "Unobtainium" may be the cause.

Had our beloved teacher been fooling us?

For reasons we can only guess at, both levels of government continue to deny the existence of changes in the environment and any possible links between tar sands mining and adverse health impacts downstream. Despite independent scientific, epidemiological and medical findings that should trigger urgent action, there is inaction and, in fact, constant defence of the tar sands. As a physician and as a human being, I must advocate for my patients, fellow Earth-dwellers, and defend them, regardless of the cost. The battle, for it surely is one, rages on. To paraphrase a song I have grown to love, "I Stand on Guard."

I ran into Mr. Crowe recently on a trip back to Ireland. We had a pint together and reminisced. I relayed to him what was going on in my Canada: the loss of forests, polluted rivers, bad air and the fear for life and limb in what was one of the most pristine parts of the vast country. But he knew all about it! Of course he would! I think both of us were travelling in our Canadas in the course of our conversation, he in his, and I in mine. I am so glad he has those memories. And I realized he was telling the truth back all those years ago.

We were surely both "on guard" for our Canadas that day.

edmoconnor.jpg Dr. John O'Connor is a family physician, practising in Alberta since 1993. Currently based in Edmonton, he has provided primary care services to Aboriginal communities in the far north of the province including Fort Chipewyan since 1994. In 2006, his concerns regarding high cancer numbers in Fort Chipewyan began to draw media attention. "Chip", as it is known, is the oldest settlement in Alberta. It also happens to be downstream of the tar sands.

July 15, 2010

Read more