Health concerns ignored, Fort Chipewyan residents say

Residents of Fort Chipewyan, Alta., say the provincial and federal governments are ignoring their concerns about high rates of cancer in their community.

Despite a seven-year-old study calling for action,residents of a northeastern Alberta town say the province is failing to protect their health.

Fort Chipewyan residents say they've been complaining for years about high rates of cancers and other serious illnesses, which they suspect are linked to nearby oilsands and pulp and paper operations.

In March, Dr. John O'Connor, a physician and medical examiner for the remote northern community, about 300 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, confirmed a high number of illnesses in the town, including leukemia, lymphomas, lupus, and autoimmune diseases.

At the time, Alberta Health Minister Iris Evans seemed surprised by the information.

But in 1999, a report, which was part of a multi-million dollar study on water in the region, called for more monitoring of pollution and illness in the area.

Lack of will to look into problem

David Schindler, the scientific adviser on the report, says it's clear to him there has been a lack will to look into the problems. He believes both federal and provincial governments are to blame.

"There hasn't been really much done," Schindler said. "They are really not allocating the resources or the staff that we need to act in the public interest in this case."

Archie Waquen agrees.

When he was a First Nation leader, Waquen said, he tried to get government officials to figure out why people were becoming ill. But no one seemed to listen, he said, even as he watched more in his community of 1,200 people die of cancer or develop serious illness.

"You know, they must think we talk for nothing," Waquen said. "I just can't figure this out."

Elders in the community say they didn't see so many serious diseases until the oil industry started production near their homes on the southwestern tip of Lake Athabasca.

Syncrude and Suncor extract and process hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil a day in their nearby oilsands projects.

Health minister didn't know about study

Evans can't explain why her ministry hasn't done more. After a year and a half on the job, she has not heard about the study or it's recommendations.

"But I can assure you that there is the will to try to find out what we can or should do to make sure we are monitoring and tracking why people are having this occur," she said.

While Evans says her officials have started work on tracking the diseases, Waquen and others say they can't afford any more delays in the search for answers.

Federal Health Minister Tony Clement was unavailable for comment.