Thursday, May 14, 2015

The High Cost Of Integrity

In this world, remaining faithful to one's principles can be a very difficult proposition. We often hear how important it is to "go along to get along," and while we all make compromises during the daily course of living, sometimes the issues confronting us are too large to ignore, too loud to mute that voice crying from within. But acknowledging that voice can come at a cost.

Dr. John O’Connor appears to be paying the price.

The northern Alberta doctor, the on-call doctor for the residents of Fort Chipewyan, you may recall, has been an outspoken critic of the tarsands, his studies showing rare cancers occurring at extremely high rates for the residents residing downstream of the oilsands, apparently the victims of toxic emissions and effluents from the bitumen extraction taking place in their environs. His warnings have been largely ignored by both the Alberta and the federal governments.

But someone must have been listening.

O'Connor, as reported in The National Observer, has been fired.
After 15 years of committed service, his termination came on May 8 without the slightest warning.

“Please be advised that Nunee Health Board Society no longer requires your professional services to provide any patient consultation or on-call services to the staff at the Fort Chipewyan Health Center.”

And just in case that wasn’t hard-edged enough:

“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 (sic)”
While at this time there is no proof that his outspokenness caused his termination, the Observer offers some history that puts his dismissal into a provocative context:
Twelve years ago, he diagnosed an unusual number of cancers of the bile duct in the tiny northern hamlet of Fort Chipewyan, located downstream of the oil sands. The condition is familiar to Dr. O’Connor because his own father died from this same illness in 1993.

He also noted higher-than-average rates of other kinds of diseases, as well as persistent reports from local hunters and fishermen of unpleasant changes in the wildlife in the region – such as dead and disappearing muskrat, and fishes with strange deformities. He wondered if these circumstances had to do with the pollution from the oil sands companies.

In 2006, the CBC reporter contacted O’Connor, who said publicly, for the first time, that he felt there was a looming public health issue in the region.

Dr. John O’Connor's data was challenged by Health Canada and public health officials in Alberta, and he was threatened with loss of his license because he had raised “undue alarm”.
While he was eventually, over several years, cleared of such charges and complaints, it turned him into a tough crusader for what he considers life and death issues.

His dismissal coincides with another curious event:
About three weeks ago, renowned physician Dr. Esther Tailfeathers, who had been spending a week every month in Fort Chipewyan for the last three years, suddenly ended her service, without explaining why to the staff at the nursing station where she worked.
That a respected First Nation physician would suddenly disappear from the community, and then three weeks later Dr. O'Connor would be abruptly terminated raises important questions as to what is going on behind the scenes.
And it would seem that the impact of these losses will reverberate throughout the region he and Tailfeathers served:
John O’Connor has been supplying on-call services, 24/7, for 15 years. He has answered calls while traveling in other countries, from holiday locations, and even from the shower, walking nursing and paramedic staff in Fort Chipewyan through challenging medical emergencies whenever they occurred. On a number of occasions over the years, he offered to reduce his fees if the Nunee Health Board Society was having trouble meeting them. In fact, [he] reduced his invoice for August 2014 to February 2015 by 50 per cent at the request of Caroline Adam, the person who sent him the one-line email [of termination] on May 8.
Virtue, we are told, is its own reward. That may have to be the consolation for O'Connor, but given his capacity to fight the good fight, I very much doubt that the matter will end here.


  1. Plus ca change, plus c'est le meme chose, Lorne.

  2. Fortunately he now has a new, reform-minded premier with a majority government to see this put right.