A small Alberta community is rallying behind a local doctor residents believe is being silenced by Health Canada because he raised concerns about high rates of cancer near the booming oilsands.
Health Canada officials have filed a complaint against Dr. John O'Connor.
O'Connoralerted themedia last year to what he believed was a disproportionately high incidence of colon, liver, blood and bile-duct cancers in patients who live in Fort Chipewyan, a small communitydownstream from major petroleum refineries.
In filing the complaint against O'Connor with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta, Health Canada did not explain the action, but said the doctor was causing undue alarm.
Meanwhile, physicians who work alongside O'Connor in Fort Chipewyan believe officials are targeting their colleague because his comments potentially threaten billions of dollars of investment in the province's oilsands.
"I am absolutely shocked that they would treat a physician of this calibre like this. There's a deliberate attempt to beat him down or shut him up," the area's head nurse, George MacDonald, said.
Since O'Connor spoke to the media last year, Alberta Health followed up on his concerns and released a summary of the analysis on the community. However, itdid not release all the findings of the study.
The CBC has now obtained a more detailed version of that report. It shows O'Connor was mostly right and that there are more cases than normal of liver, bile duct, colon cancer and cancers of the blood.
But the numbers are not as high as he thought, and Alberta Health said the rates are not statistically high enough to be any cause for concern.
Community physicians want to know if that's true. The Nunee Health Authority believes one way to find out is to conduct more thorough health studies, not attack its doctor.
'He's standing up for us'
"It really upsets me because it's just not right. He's standing up for us," said Donna Cyprian, who works at the health authority.
Dr. Michel Sauvé, whoheads the intensive care unit in Fort McMurray where O'Connor is based — heflies in to Fort Chipewyanon Tuesdays and Wednesdays —said doctors who identify potential public health problems should be protected rather than punished.
"Obviously, we need some whistleblower protection, some laws that will banish these kinds of repressive censorship. Punishing and trying to single out a physician to shut him up is not in the public interest," he said.
Alberta's Energy and Utilities Boardhas twice recommended health studies on the community of 1,200. A 1999 report from the province called for closer monitoring of pollution and illness in the area. And in May 2006, the provincial and federal governments launched a joint investigation into why cancer seemed socommon at Fort Chipewyan.
O'Connor's lawyer said he is not speaking to the media until the complaint is resolved.