Fort Chipewyan rejects Alberta Cancer Board study

A study by the Alberta Cancer Board into cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan will not be the comprehensive probe promised, area health officials and community leaders say.

A study by the Alberta Cancer Board into cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan will not be the comprehensive probe promised, area health officials and community leaders say.

Officials in the northern Alberta community publicly rejected the study's findings Monday before they have even been released. The results are expected to be made public sometime this fall.

"We said from the start with the original study two years ago that not only did the community need to be engaged throughout but that the methodology originally employed needed to change," Fred Fraser, president of the Fort Chipewyan Métis local association, said in a news release.

"There was no consideration to look at methods that would be consistent with the health board's wishes."

"We are extremely disappointed with the cancer board. It's our opinion that the current draft study is an identical product of the original one, which we also rejected for a number of reasons, including the fact that it was incomplete," Mikisew Cree Chief Roxanne Marcel said in the same release. 

"This is further commentary that Fort Chipewyan shouldn't trust government on providing accurate information on anything related to tarsands development and its impacts downstream."

The cancer board promised to involve the community in the study, which was launched in May 2008 to investigate long-standing concerns that cancer rates in the area appear to be higher than average.

"They just didn't include us. Bottom line, I haven't seen the team come up here. They haven't come to the community to actually meet with the elders or to get some feedback from the community," Steve Courtoreille, chairman of the Nunee Health Region, which is in charge of health care in the region, said last week.

Courtoreille said cancer board officials only visited Fort Chipewyan to announce the start of the study, and returned only when it was complete.

Downstream from oilsands

A community of about 1,200 located 300 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, Fort Chipewyan is downstream from many oilsands projects, and residents believe something in their drinking water is causing cancer.

Dr. Michel Sauve, president of the Fort McMurray Medical Association, whose members treat people in Fort Chipewyan, said the researchers may have missed part of the picture.

By examining only cases that are in the Alberta Cancer Board's registry, the study misses many cases in Fort Chipewyan because, he said, people who die at home in a community that is only accessible by air most of the year aren't included in the registry.

"It could be missing as much as half of the cases of cancer.… The study design needs to consider all cases of cancers," he said.

Sauve said the doctor who flies into the community is the only person who was contacted by researchers, and that individual is relatively new to the community. No other members of his association were contacted, he said.  

The doctor who first raised concerns about Fort Chipewyan cancer rates, the area's former physician and medical examiner, Dr. John O'Connor, wasn't consulted either.

Sauve wonders what purpose the study is actually serving.

"Is this going to be a story of PR and somewhat falsely reassuring people or is this going to be solid scientific evidence?" he said.

CBC News has learned that Lee Elliott, the director of communications for the Alberta Cancer Board, is listed as co-investigator on the study. There is one principal investigator and six co-investigators, according to a document obtained by CBC News.

But on CBC Radio's Wildrose Country on Monday, Dr. Tony Fields, vice-president of medical affairs and community oncology for the Alberta Cancer Board, said Elliott was never an investigator on the study.

"She was invited to be an investigator by Dr. [Yiqun] Chen, the lead investigator," Fields said. "Dr. Chen had gone as far as to list her as such on the submission for ethics review before she had heard from Lee [Elliott] and Lee had declined."

"[Elliott] is our communications point person, and she is a member of the working group that was the oversight committee on the study, but she was never an investigator," he said.

Fields said the results of the study will be subject to peer review. The draft report of the study has been sent to six experts from four countries to get feedback.

Fields said the investigators will analyze the commetns, and incorporate any suggestions they make.

"We have taken this study very, very seriously, and we want to do as good and thorough a scientific study as possible," he said.

Study the latest in a decade-long battle for Fort Chipewyan

People in Fort Chipewyan have demanded a study into their concerns for nearly a decade.

In March 2006, a study by O'Connor led him to believe the community's cancer rates were disproportionately high.

A followup report by Alberta Health found that while the numbers were high, they did not match those stated by O'Connor and were not high enough to cause concern.

O'Connor said that report was inadequate. It was completed over the course of a few weeks and researchers said they were missing some key data. O'Connor also noted that neither he nor any members of the community were involved in the analysis.

The doctor's report and a formal complaint Health Canada filed against him for allegedly causing undue alarm garnered media attention around the world, including from Al Jazeera and the New York Times.

Environmental groups have also used the community's high disease rates to fuel their arguments for halting oil development.

The federal and provincial governments said the fears were unfounded and there was no need for a study.

But two years later, officials decided a thorough review was needed.

With files from Erik Denison