Chiefs are frustrated and angry about cancer study

It’s said that if you “fess-up” and admit the errors of your ways and tell the truth about your wrongdoings, you will find peace of mind and a sense of fulfillment. Of course, if the wrong-doings are serious enough, one could find oneself facing a hefty fine or perhaps some time in a provincial or federal prison. Maybe it’s the latter that prevents the federal and provincial governments from coming clean when it becomes blatantly obvious that they have dirty hands. Take the escalating cases of cancer being experienced by First Nations citizens in northeastern Alberta as an example. Community doctors, even research gleaned by the Alberta Cancer Board indicates that the areas in and around Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan have seen elevated levels of cancer in recent years.

A lack of government support, continued denials by Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer, the ongoing lack of transparency by government health authorities and the penchant to blame “lifestyle and personal habit” rather than admit or fully investigate the possibility that toxic waste from the regions ever-growing oil and gas industry could be responsible for this serious health concern, has two First Nations community leaders angry, frustrated and ready to take matters into their own hands. The recent release of cancer statistics in the community of Fort Chipewyan, a release that came without any consultation or input from community leaders, has angered both Mikisew Cree Nation Chief Steve Courtoreille and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam, who both say they may have to conduct their own investigation if government doesn’t have the stomach for it.

“This behaviour,” stated Chief Courtoreille, “is once again reminiscent of the way the government of Alberta has treated our community in relation to the public release of cancer statistics related to our community. Why the government continues to undermine the leadership of Fort Chipewyan is beyond me; Health Minister Horne had promised to get us a copy of the report prior to releasing these statistics and that didn’t happen.”

Maybe that’s because there are so many contradictions and stupid comments coming out of government that they wouldn’t know the truth if it hit them in the face; one hand doesn’t seem to know what the other is doing at any given time. The province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. James Talbot has suggested that lifestyle has more to do with increasing cancer rates than dirty soil, tainted water and poisonous air. He suggested that poor access to health centres and pap smears and vaccines are another reason the rates are so high. He also suggested that family history, obesity, alcoholism, diabetes and other diseases are to blame, though he did not dismiss the possibility of a thorough investigation some time down the road.

Community participation and a dialogue with First Nations, he suggested, would be helpful.

“What we need to do in this situation is engage with the community and determine exactly what their concerns are and exactly what they would like measured.”

Chief Courtoreille said that ever since the community became aware of the cancer increases back in 2009, government has continued to do nothing, stating that the provincial government “has downplayed the significance of cancer in my community and they have done that again today in their reports to the media that there is no reason for alarm of increased levels of cancers in my community.”

A meeting scheduled between the province and the band was cancelled recently when Alberta Health refused to send an advance copy of their report to the Mikisew Cree, who wanted time to study the document so they would have the ability to provide input.

“We don’t want any surprises,” noted Chief Courtoreille. “We want to know exactly what is going on every step of the way. There’s a lack of transparency going on right now; this is how mistrust is created.”

That mistrust has been ongoing for many decades and only worsened in 2009 after local doctor, John O’Connor and Fort Chipewyan spokesperson George Poitras raised the question about elevated cases of cancer in the community and called the situation a “crisis” that needed “urgent attention.” They were reprimanded and Dr. Conner was charged with four different counts, including one of causing undue alarm in the community.

Those charges were eventually dropped, likely because the truth is more important than lies and undue alarm or not, citizens are entitled to the truth.

Back then Alberta Health Services doctor Tony Fields told media and the Aboriginal community that “the overall findings show no cause for alarm.”

When then Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky blamed lifestyle choices as the reason for the growing cancer rates, another doctor spoke up and chastised him.

“Liepert needs to give his head a shake if he thinks his broad and dismissive reference to lifestyle choices will console or reassure Fort Chip patients or the families of the deceased,” stated Fort McMurray doctor Michael Sauvé. “Top politicians and bureaucrats have, sadly, acted like industry apologists, dissing the medical whistleblowers and condoning or conducting attacks against our medical licences. Our government and its agents should concentrate instead on doing the right thing, right now – deal openly and fairly with the problems downstream from the oil sands.”

That same scenario seems to be playing out one more time.

“We’ve been lobbying this for years,” noted Chief Allan Adam in a recent interview during the Pathways 2014 conference for Youth in the Trades. “Everyone knows we have been trying but we’ve seen nothing. This is why we feel like we’re being swept under the rug. We are tired of government’s lack of action when it comes to Aboriginal issues and concerns. We are determined to get to the bottom of the matter with or without government input; they leave us in the dark so I see no reason why we can’t just fund our own study; hire our own experts, arrive at our own conclusions. It is time we stopped depending on government to do the right thing; we can generate our own funds and in fact are beginning to refuse government dollars as we speak. If we want to escape their clutches, their one-sided opinions and self-serving innuendo, we need to generate economic development so we can collectively tell them exactly where they can put their money.”

A spokesperson for the Athabasca Chipewyan, Eriel Deranger, reminds readers that just a month or so ago a non-Native community near Peace River complained about the odours seeping into the air from a piece of Baytex oilfield equipment. Residents complained and government not only listened, it jumped to action.

Deranger said the double-standard is hypocritical, especially when the Alberta Energy Regulator has demanded Calgary-based Baytex to install pollution-control equipment near Peace River by the end of the summer.

“We’ve had no study or research done in the region, but a community to the southwest of us that is non-Indigenous has already had this done.”

In the meantime the Mikisew Cree and the ACFN remain resilient, if not hopeful.

“If government doesn’t soon step up and act in a reasonable and equitable way,” noted Chief Adam, “we will fund an independent study of the cancer rates.”

If that’s the case, the Alberta Government is likely to emerge looking incapable, biased and foolish.

But then again, what’s new?

by John Copley

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