Fort Chipewyan’s Strange Sickness

Downriver from northern Alberta’s oilsands, the people of Fort Chipewyan have been taking ill and dying. The province says nothing’s wrong. The community’s residents beg to differ.

THE CATHOLIC CEMETERY IN FORT CHIPEWYAN, Alberta is not grand or granite-studded, but it is getting full. Steve Courtoreille tells me this on a cold April morning as he leads me through the picket-fenced plots in search of his nephew’s grave, which isn’t immediately apparent after the previous night’s snowstorm. “It used to be that we buried our old people,” he says, “but now we’re burying the young.” We stop at an unvarnished wooden cross hung with fake-flower wreaths. Pressed into the wood, a gold plaque reads: “Grant Sterling Remi Courtoreille: Only the good die young.”

Grant, who Courtoreille raised like a son, had just turned 28 when he died this January. He’d been at the Edmonton hospital, bedridden by a vicious strain of lymphoma which killed him four months after being diagnosed. It started out sounding like a chest cold, but soon Grant was sweating uncontrollably and skinny, but for his legs, which were swollen like tree trunks. The slightest whiff of an air freshener sent him into coughing fits so strong he would vomit. “The saddest part,” says Courtoreille, “is that it wouldn’t have mattered if it was caught earlier. The doctors said ‘Once you get this, you’re doomed.’”

Lymphoma can be caused by a number of things: bad genes, certain viruses or just bad luck. But many in Fort Chip blame Grant’s death – and others in the community – on a more sinister source. Courtoreille says, “It’s what’s coming down the river that concerns me.”

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ALBERTA’S OILSANDS are easy to hate. The mining operation spans hundreds of square kilometres of grey, dusty land that’s been skinned like an animal. The scene is made all the more dramatic by the plumes of pollution and tangles of mammoth machinery constantly digging up the bitumen-laced sand. This gummy, blue-black bitumen must be separated from the grit before it can be upgraded into useable oil, a costly process requiring loads of energy and water, and leaving behind a slurry of toxins – arsenic, naphthenic acids and other unpronounceable contaminants – that get shunted into giant tailings ponds. So far there are more than a dozen of these ponds – enough tainted water to fill 220,000 Olympic-sized pools. Six more have been proposed as oilsands mining ramps up.

The ponds are neither pretty nor fail safe; they’re known to leak. To prevent pollutants from seeping into the surrounding groundwater, oilsands companies equip ponds with recapture systems, though they admit such measures aren’t 100 per cent effective. Other mining pollutants can escape via pipeline ruptures, oil spills and accidental mine discharges. And there’s the air pollution that spews from smoke stacks.

Living 250 kilometres down the Athabasca River from all this, Fort Chip residents fear these contaminants are trickling into the currents, deforming fish, polluting wildlife and making them sick. And they aren’t alone in their suspicions. Doctors have gone public about the community’s seemingly excessive incidences of colon cancer, leukemia, lupus and other rare diseases that seem too prevalent for a community of 1,200.

Fort Chip is a tidy, forested community on the north shore of Lake Athabasca where the Peace and Athabasca Rivers merge. Well-positioned at this confluence, Chip has historically been a hub of barge-traffic and fur-trading. It’s the province’s oldest settlement, home to long lines of Cree, Dene and Métis families who once trapped and traded here. But as modern ways inevitably cut into this remote road-less settlement, things aren’t what they used to be. Hardly anyone fishes the river anymore, and though half of Western Canada’s fur once came from here, today only a handful of people still trap. Many of the community’s young people have flocked to Fort McMurray, where they can make $100,000 a year operating heavy equipment for an oilsands company.

It’s a troubling position for Allan Adam, a Fort Chip chief, pony-tailed and tough-looking in his leather bomber jacket. “What do you do? On the one hand oilsands are good for the economy, good for jobs,” he says. “But on the other hand, they’re bad for our health and bad for our way of living. People are dying.”

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John O’Connor is a petite, mild-mannered doctor with a neglected grey beard and freckly skin. For a soft-spoken guy, O’Connor became Fort Chip’s most audible voice – though reluctantly. Because of him the community’s health concerns snagged media attention and spread, like juicy stories do.

Soon after he began flying to Fort Chip in late 2000, O’Connor started hearing the same observations. Elders were telling him about river water that left oily rings in their kettles, fish with cysts and bulbous eyes, and the way people were dying – in surprising numbers, and of never-before-seen illnesses. As he took on more patients, their files revealed a matching back-story. “I wasn’t looking for anything, but I gradually began to see what I thought were clusters of disease,” says O’Connor in a soft Irish accent. “I was looking in patient files and seeing that people had been diagnosed at relatively young ages with various types of disease, all documented before I got there.” O’Connor bounced his concerns off colleagues in Fort McMurray, where he had his main practice. They agreed that something in the numbers was off-kilter. “I mean, compared with my practice in McMurray – I had almost 10,000 active files at one point – I wasn’t seeing anything like the rate of illness in Chip’s population of 1,200,” O’Connor says. “I was seeing issues I shouldn’t have been seeing.”

O’Connor had been diagnosing lots of colon cancers, some lymphomas, leukemia, brain tumours, two thyroid cancers and “one chap who had two primary tumours of the spine – like, unusual stuff.” Even more unusual were cases of a rare bile-duct cancer called cholangiocarcinoma, which causes liver failure, jaundice and terrible stomach pain. It normally afflicts one in 100,000, yet O’Connor suspects he saw five cases during his five years in Fort Chip. He knew the symptoms because his own father died of it more than a decade ago. “I began to wonder what was going on,” he says. “Was it lifestyle, genetics, or could the illnesses be due to environmental influences?”

Eventually, and to the near detriment of his career, O’Connor’s concerns made national news in the spring of 2006, when a CBC reporter sought him out on a tip and broke the story. Other national media followed, and the Fort Chip cancer story was officially out. The provincial government sprang into action. Two months after the story made the papers, Alberta Health released a six-page statistical study that reported the community’s cancer-rates on par with the province’s – even lower in some cases.

If you ask O’Connor, the study was a joke, hastily assembled and based on incomplete data. As far as he could tell no one in the community had been interviewed, and researchers hadn’t even asked to consult his patient files. Another study quietly followed almost a year later, this one on arsenic levels in moose meat, in which Alberta Health found that concentrations were no worse than in moose from the Yukon. The study calculated that a lifetime of exposure to this meat would result in 17-33 more cases of cancer per 100,000 people. Though it was billed to the community as good news, people in Fort Chip were irate.

“When [the government] came to the community to deliver the results, people literally told them to get out of town,” says George Poitras, a former chief. For the past two years, 44-year-old Poitras has been telling Fort Chip’s story to anyone who will listen, emailing environmental NGOs, speaking at rallies, confronting politicians. Frustrated, yet ready for a long fight, Poitras has little trust or time for Alberta’s position, one that he thinks is firmly on the side of industry. “By virtue of all these approvals of multi-million-dollar projects,” he says, “they clearly have no intention of helping us find answers.”

O’Connor notes he wasn’t the first person to call attention to Fort Chipewyan’s illness rates or the need for health studies of its residents. Two doctors before him had voiced similar pleas, and back in 1999, a federal-provincial study on Alberta’s northern rivers – the Peace, the Athabasca and the Slave – called for human-health monitoring. All were unheeded, and the province’s health department has yet to conduct the study.

In the meantime, O’Connor had been getting heat from some of his colleagues. In early 2007 a couple of Health Canada doctors reported him to Alberta’s College of Physicians and Surgeons on a series of complaints, mainly for causing “undue alarm” in the community (the charge is still pending). Stressed by the media attention and the prospect of a tarnished career, O’Connor left northern Alberta for Nova Scotia. “I’m not an expert, I’m just a family physician,” he says. “I don’t know why these illnesses are happening. I’m just saying there seems to be a problem that at least deserves a study – go in and do a history, take blood and hair samples, at least check things out.”

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IN MUCH THE SAME WAY people record their dreams or keep a to-do list, Elsie Ladouceur documents Fort Chip’s dead. Since 2000, she’s been writing the names, dates and ages of the community’s deceased in a pocket spiral-notebook she keeps in her bedroom. She never notes the cause of death – some have died of old age and accidents; others of kidney failure, lupus and leukemia. According to her book, Grant Courtoreille’s was the 108th death in eight years.

Photo by Pat Kane

Ladouceur isn’t the only one tabulating deaths and illness. It’s a small place; everyone knows when someone gets sick, most certainly when someone dies.

Mary “Cookie” Simpson has a sick-list of her own – many are members of her family. Simpson’s daughter, Ivy, had cervical cancer when she was 17, her aunt died of uterine cancer in the 1980s, and there are others, uncles and cousins, who succumbed to or recovered from various reproductive-system cancers. Simpson is a tiny woman with a big purpose. She runs community services for the Mikisew Cree band, and is also director of the local Nunee Health Board. She’d been off work recently, recovering from a hysterectomy. She swiftly assures me, “It had nothing to do with cancer – it was just a lump.”

Photo by Pat Kane

We’re in her big, beige office at the community multiplex, looking at a wall-size map of Alberta that shows all the oil-company leases in multi-coloured splotches. “We keep burying people, and they keep giving out permits,” she says, marvelling at the growing landmass being gobbled by the petroleum industry. “It’s just disgusting because it’s preventable.”

Feeling cheated by the province’s rosy cancer- and arsenic-studies, Simpson and the Nunee Health Board quietly got some money together and commissioned well-known Alberta ecologist Kevin Timoney to find out what toxins, if any, were seeping into the lower Athabasca River. Timoney had made a career studying the river, and had been the resident ecologist for the nearby Wood Buffalo National Park for three-and-half years.

After mucking around in the river and digging through the province’s unpublished water-quality data, Timoney confirmed the community’s suspicions. River sediments were found to contain worrisome levels of arsenic and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), both known to cause cancer. In the water he found high arsenic levels, along with various metals and herbicides. The fish were toxic with mercury. (There has been a one-fish-a-week advisory – one-a-month for expecting mothers – along the Athabasca since 2004.) The good news was the community’s tap water seemed to be fine.

Preston McEachern is Alberta Environment’s head of oilsands, and a limnologist with a PhD in water contamination. He has mixed feelings about Timoney’s study. “It’s great – the more outside analysis, the better. It’s forced us to dig out all of the cobwebs and do a thorough assessment of the data that we’ve got,” he says. “But there’s some difference of opinion with respect to how the data were analyzed, and Timoney goes too far in making suggestions about the health implications.”

McEachern maintains that any toxins that might be leaking into the river from the tailings ponds would be adequately diluted by the time they reached Fort Chip. And as for the carcinogens Timoney found in the river sediment, McEachern says it’s unclear how people are actually ingesting the stuff. “You have PAHs in sediments, OK, aside from somebody going down and eating a plate full of sand every day, there’s no exposure pathway because PAHs don’t accumulate in biota,” he says. “It can pose a threat to biota, but not particularly to the residents of Fort Chip.”

Despite harsh criticism by Dr. O’Connor, Fort Chip residents and environmentalists, the Alberta government stands by its studies. “We’ve been working on this sedulously for the last few years since we first suspected arsenic might be a problem,” McEachern says. “And we’ve found that arsenic is not really a problem, nor is there any indication of increased cancer in the Fort Chip area.”

This year, more studies will follow. In the fall, McEachern’s team will initiate a sampling program closer to Fort Chip, while Alberta Health, in partnership with the province’s cancer board, Health Canada and Fort Chip’s health board, will test O’Connor’s suspicions of a cancer cluster. But the doctor’s – and the community’s – original appeal for an all-out human-health study still hasn’t happened.

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ALBERTA HAS BEEN CALLED the Texas of Canada, partly because of its political bent and the sheer bigness of everything. It’s also because the province has become America’s leading source of foreign oil as the country looks to break its dependence on the turbulent Middle East. As a result, Canada’s oilsands mining is expected to triple in next decade. Industry experts have hailed Alberta as the future of oil supply – for good reason. Its deposit spans a landmass double the size of New Brunswick, and since mining started in 1967, only three per cent has been tapped. If demand and prices permit, production could last for decades and spread right across northwestern Alberta.

It’s a fact that weighs heavily on Steve Courtoreille. “There’s so much pressure on Alberta to deliver the goods,” he says over coffee at the Fort Chip Lodge. Six months after his nephew’s death, Courtoreille is sad, but sober. “It could be a freak thing, it could be industry,” he says, but he isn’t hopeful that Alberta will help find out. “I don’t know Premier Ed Stelmach, I’ve never met him. He’s probably a good man, he’s probably a caring man and a caring father. But you know, he’s been bought and paid for. And there’s no turning back.”


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