Oilsands critic lauds companies for helping Fort McKay First Nation during Fort McMurray evacuation

A physician known for speaking out about the health impact of oilsands development on indigenous people is praising those same companies for stepping up during the Fort McMurray evacuation.

Dr. John O'Connor and his wife cared for Fort McKay residents and evacuees after Fort McMurray was evacuated

Dr. John O'Connor, pictured here with a four legged evacuee, spent the week of the Fort McMurray evacuation caring for Fort McKay residents and evacuees. (provided)

Dr. John O'Connor is known for raising concerns about the health impact of oilsands development on indigenous people.

But now he is praising those same companies for helping the people of Fort MacKay during the Fort McMurray evacuation.

"We were absolutely floored and so happy for the kind of support we got — especially from industry," said O'Connor, who has been serving residents of Fort McKay with his wife Charlene, a treatment nurse, for 18 years.

Evacuees began pouring into Fort McKay on May 3. But their tiny health centre was not set up for the emergencies cropping up. Supplies were dwindling, especially the IV fluids needed by patients such as a child with pancreatitis.

But within half an hour of a call, an EMS vehicle pulled up outside the clinic.

"Syncrude had delivered four boxes of everything we would need," said O'Connor, who travels back and forth between Fort McKay and Edmonton weekly. "And we were just told if you need anything more, just call us and we'll be there."
Charlene O'Connor outside the Fort McKay health clinic where a Syncrude EMS vehicle pulled up with boxes of supplies. (provided)

O'Connor emphasized that past criticism was not directed at industry but rather what he saw as the previous government's failure to look after people's interests.

He said they saw the same sort of support from Suncor and Imperial Oil. Similarly, Shell and CNRL flew out vulnerable residents while CNRL "bent over backwards" picking up and caring for people until they boarded a flight to Edmonton.

"The word back I got back from them was that 'we were treated like royalty'," said O'Connor. "And that was the hallmark of this throughout that week. It was unbelievable. I was so thankful."

We were absolutely floored and so happy for the kind of support we got -- especially from industry- Dr. John O'Connor

O'Connor also lauded Fort McKay residents for stepping up. Candace Fabian "needs to take a bow," he said, after taking in 23 people, mostly strangers, and lending out her vehicle.

"The way people pulled together was absolutely breathtaking and certainly fills me with pride for having witnessed what went on," said O'Connor.

But community and industry weren't the only ones to go above and beyond.
After rescuing Charlene's mom from Fort McMurray the O'Connors headed back to care for the people of Fort MacKay. (provided)

On the day of the evacuation, the O'Connors raced to Fort McMurray to pick up Charlene's mother.

Instead of continuing south, they headed back.

"Nothing would keep John from caring for his patients; not even the prospect of the city burning around him," said the O'Connors' son-in-law Clayton MacEachern of Fort McMurray, who also ended up in Fort McKay with his wife and their two children.

But when the road opened again a few days later and they headed south, the O'Connors stayed put.

Nothing would keep John from caring for his patients; not even the prospect of the city burning around him- Clayton MacEachern

"Dr. O'Connor and Charlene stayed because the community of Fort McKay needed them and they were not capable of separating themselves from that responsibility — a responsibility they have had for 18 years," said MacEachern.

The following weekend, the air quality index in Fort McKay shot up to 520 (on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 is considered unacceptable). The O'Connors worked throughout the night and into the morning to ensure elders, asthmatics, mothers of young children and others boarded a well stocked bus, accompanied by an ambulance, heading south.
On May 7, as the O'Connors loaded Fort MacKay residents on to buses, the air quality had shot up to an alarming level.

"This is the reason why we stayed," said O'Connor. "We weren't doing anything over and above what anybody else would have done in that situation.

"We were doing what we needed to do to ensure the safety of the vulnerable section of Fort McKay.".

Their mission accomplished, the O'Connors finally boarded a plane later that day. But MacEachern said in "true Dr. O'Connor fashion", even as the physician walked off the plane, he was on the phone giving personal care to a Fort McKay resident.

He took "a break just long enough to give his granddaughters a kiss and continue on with his duty to the people," said MacEachern.

The O'Connors continue to deliver care to the residents of Fort McKay First Nation by phone, as well as travelling to St. Paul to check up on elders in person.

@andreahuncar     andrea.huncar@cbc.ca