Friday, 6 March 2009

Dr. John O’Connor returns to Fort Chipewyan for documentary premiere.

Subjects gathering for doc premiere

'Fitting' documentary being showcased in Fort Chip, says whistleblower doctor

Posted 1 day ago


Today staff

Anticipation is riding high for Friday's premiere screening of Downstream as key players in the real-life drama prepare to return to Fort Chipewyan, the documentary's focal point.

"I'm really looking forward to going to Fort Chip," said Dr. John O'Connor, the local doctor who first raised the alarm on elevated rates of rare cancers in the First Nation community. O'Connor will be joined at the screening by Downstream writer and director Leslie Iwerks. Producer Phil Alberstat will be joining Iwerks and O'Connor at subsequent showings and panel discussions in Edmonton on Sunday and Calgary on Monday.

"I'm very, very glad that the documentary is being premiered in Fort Chip because so much in the past regarding Fort Chip has been premiered elsewhere," he added. "Seeing as it's all about the community, it's only fitting Fort Chip be the first to view it."

Community spokesman George Poitras of the Mikisew Cree First Nation added, "People are very much looking forward to this. Many people in Fort Chip have heard about this documentary … and the whole story about Dr. O'Connor and the fallout of his making public what Fort Chipewyan was observing in terms of cancers is very important a story to them."

After he alerted the provincial medical and scientific communities to a possible link between unusually high levels of carcinogens in the Athabasca River and rare forms of human cancer in Fort Chip, O'Connor was promptly labelled a whistleblower. Health Canada filed four charges against him, and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta was asked to investigate. Three charges have since been dropped, though the charge of causing undue alarm in the community remains.


A synopsis of the documentary reads "at the heart of the multi-billion dollar oilsands industry in Alberta, Canada, a doctor's career is jeopardized as he fights for the lives of the aboriginal people living and dying of rare cancers downstream from one of the most polluting oil operations in the world." Once the Alberta showings are finished, Downstream will have its international premiere on tentatively scheduled for March 20, followed by screenings at film festivals around the world.

"Anyone that's seen it so far, it's been the same sort of laughing and crying, and in the end pretty much coming to the same conclusion: it's time to do something, and why aren't they moving on it?" said O'Connor, back in Fort McMurray this week making his patient rounds.

While anticipation is high in the First Nation community, the oldest settlement in Alberta, O'Connor said it's hard to predict reaction to the showings in Edmonton, home to the Alberta legislature, and Calgary, where many energy companies are headquartered.

"It could really be a surprise to all of us," he said.

O'Connor said the 33-minute documentary has no editorializing; it just features different people speaking, and has "some nice footage that kind of gives you an idea of what's going on. … You draw your own conclusions." That's especially after listening to Alberta Energy Minister Mel Knight and Greg Stringham, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

According to Poitras, Downstream is causing some concern for the Alberta government as well as the energy industry "for very obvious reasons," said Poitras, who suspects the government will have representatives in the Edmonton and Calgary cinemas to see the documentary and "reporting back to them."


Downstream is the forerunner to a feature-length movie, Upstream, scheduled for release this summer.

Iwerks said teasers of Upstream may be shown after Downstream but she wasn't certain.

Upstream is currently being edited, and Iwerks described it as much different than Downstream in that it offers a more global picture of the entire oilsands industry. That includes the impacts on land and people as well as the surrounding communities including Chicago and the Great Lakes when it comes to U.S. refining.

After fully reading the second cancer study including the comments by the peer reviewers, O'Connor said the foundation has been laid for further assessment and a baseline healthy study. "I think that's what's going to come out of Fort Chip on Friday."

The Downstream premiere marks the first time the community has gathered since the Feb. 6 release of the second cancer study by the Alberta Cancer Board. The study into elevated rates of rare cancers, namely cholangiocarcinoma, found higher rates of three different types of cancers than expected. Despite those findings, Alberta Health Services maintained there was no cause for alarm. But the study recommended continued surveillance of cancer rates in the community for at least another decade based on the findings and "soft" warnings.

The cancers that were more evident than expected were biliary tract cancers as a whole, cancers of the blood and lymphatic system, and soft tissue cancers. Fields said the higher rates could be the result of chance, increased detection or lifestyle choices. He added the provincial investigation really couldn't go any further in distinguishing them. While the study looked at elevated cases, it didn't look at causes such as environmental impacts, and based on what researchers saw in this study, Fields said there was insufficient evidence to launch such a study.

However, this latest study says the initial 2006 study — which gave the community the all-clear — was wrong.

Article ID# 1464834

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