(Dr. John O’Connor at a coffee shop in Edmonton. APTN/Brandi Morin)
APTN National News
A doctor servicing the community of Fort Chipewyan, Alta. (Fort Chip) has been fired and said he was given no explanation as to why.
Dr. John O’Connor made international headlines when he first spoke out about elevated cancer rates in Northern Alberta communities and believed they were linked to tar sands activity from toxins leaking out into the surrounding land and water systems. A claim that was later supported by a study partially funded by Health Canada.
“I am in shock,” said O’Connor about the sudden termination. “I am stunned. I got chest pain when I heard this. I’m very sad.”
O’Connor has worked in the small community of Fort Chip, located 300 km north of Fort McMurray, for almost 16 years.
Fewer than 1,500 people live there in the hamlet includes the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Mikisew Cree First Nation people.
O’Connor said he received a termination letter via email from the health director of the Nunee Health Board Society Friday afternoon.
After advising that his professional services were no longer required, effectively immediately, the letter goes on to state: “In addition, you have no authority to speak to or represent the Nunee Health Board Society in any way to any other individual, party or entity.”
“I emailed back and asked them ‘why?’ but didn’t get a response,” said O’Connor.
“It’s like losing a very close family member except they’re still there. Like I’ve been put into exile.”
In 2007, four years after O’Connor sounded the alarm regarding his concerns of a rare type of cancer he noticed trending among residents in Fort Chip, Health Canada accused him of engendering mistrust, blocking access to files, billing irregularities, and raising undue alarm in the community.
The professional misconduct charges threatened his medical license with the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons, however O’Connor was cleared of all charges minus raising undue alarm.
Then in March 2009, the residents of Fort Chip released a statement in support of O’Connor and demanded that the remaining charge against him be dismissed.
“This charge of ‘causing undue alarm,’ since it was lodged, was the cause of much frustration and disbelief by residents of Fort Chipewyan,” the statement said.”Frustration, because the residents of the community have never been consulted on whether we agree with the charge; and disbelief that the very responsible authority who is charged with protecting our interests and our health was actually lodging the complaints against Dr. John O’Connor, rather than coming to the aid of our community to find resolution to Dr. John O’ Connor’s claims.”
He was cleared of the remaining charge in November 2009.
O’Connor has been providing 24/7 on call medical care to the remote community for the last several years and has built relationships with the people there.
Relationships, he said are harder to establish in an Aboriginal community.
Another doctor, Esther Tailfeathers who had been working alongside O’Connor in Fort Chip for the last three years left suddenly last month.
O’Connor said that two new doctors are being brought in to service the community, however, he’s concerned that it may be difficult for them to become familiar with patient files and complex treatment plans.
Patti Grandjambe, a resident of Fort Chip said she was very sad to learn of O’Connor’s termination.
“He went out on a limb for us and speaking out about the higher rates of cancer” she said. “Now that he’s gone who do we turn to?”
O’Connor told APTN National News that no matter what happens, he will continue to advocate for the community and to push the Alberta government to follow through on a commitment to a comprehensive health study of cancer rates in the region.
As for answers as to why he was suddenly booted from the community he holds so near to his heart, O’Connor isn’t sure he’ll get any.
Now, he said he feels like a part of himself was left behind in Fort Chip.
“It’s like a part of you is gone. Maybe in a few months it will be a little bit less, but I know I won’t stop contact with the community that’s for sure. They’ll always be family,” he said.
O’Connor will remain the health director and family physician in Fort McKay First Nation and continue to work with the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre in Fort McMurray.
Fort Chip leadership officials, the Nunee Health Board Society and Alberta Health Services were unavailable for comment.