Whistleblowing Alberta oil sands doctor fired abruptly

Repost from the National Observer, Vancouver BC

Whistleblowing Alberta oil sands doctor fired abruptly

By Warren Bell in Opinion | May 11th 2015
Photo by Andrew S. Wright of Dr. John O’Connor in Ft. McKay medical centre

My friend and colleague Dr. John O’Connor has just been fired, without cause, and without advance notice.

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)”

So hastily was this letter of dismissal sent to Dr. John O’Connor, on-call family physician for the 1200 citizens of the remote community of Fort Chipewyan, that there was no date on the top of the letter, and not even a period at the end of one of the sentences.

Even more peculiar – and suggestive of behind-the-scene machinations – the letter carelessly contained a request that he submit invoices by April 30 for services not already compensated.

The letter, from Roxanne Marcel, chairperson of the Nunee Health Board Society, came as an attachment to one-line email sent to him last Friday by Caroline Adam, health director of the same body. O’Connor said neither has responded to his repeated attempts to contact them.

A few hours before he was fired, Dr. O’Connor said he had spoken to two medical colleagues associated with the community, who made no mention of any plans to replace him. Shortly after, he received the notice of termination.

Then he received an email thread indicating that plans to replace him had already been established, prior to his conversation with his two colleagues.

This extraordinary sequence of events has all the hallmarks of a politically motivated drama.

That’s because John O’Connor is no ordinary family physician. 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”.

Eventually he was cleared of all charges and complaints, but the process, which took several years to resolve, changed him forever.

Last year he told Desmog Canada that he emerged a “much tougher person.”

Nothing, however, prepared this family physician for what happened a couple of days ago.

“I am at a huge loss to explain this,” he said. “I feel like I’ve lost a family member.”

The timing of his abrupt dismissal is curious. 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.

In a long article published in the Edmonton Journal on March 29, she had commented that “it is really difficult to keep nurses in the community and it is certainly hard to recruit physicians.

Dr. Tailfeathers was loved and respected in the community. The nurse in charge of the health clinic called her “really amazing”. Her departure was just as mysterious as the abrupt dismissal of Dr. O’Connor.

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, 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 on May 8.

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.

Whatever the cause of his dismissal, we can all be sure of one thing: Dr. O’Connor, after a decade-long crusade to draw international attention to the health problems of those living downstream of the oil sands, is unlikely disappear quietly.

Aided by his many friends and colleagues, he will undoubtedly discover who is responsible for ushering him out the door, cutting him off from the community he loves, and and continue advocating for the health of that community.

His story will continue to unfold.