STOP: Stop Tar Sands Operations Permanently

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Those touched by cancer on Alberta reserve tell their stories at legislature

Posted by mhudema on March 3, 2008

EDMONTON — Janelle Vermillion owns a house in the tiny northern Alberta community of Fort Chipewyan. Her family, including her brother, still lives there. She considers it home.But the 27-year-old woman says she will never again feel safe living there.

“I just want to move back home,” she said, fighting back tears as she gestured to the pink-clad six-month-old baby in the stroller in front of her.

“But this is my daughter, and I don’t want to bring her back.”

Vermillion was one of about 200 people who rallied on the steps of the Alberta legislature Saturday calling on the provincial government – whatever form it takes after Monday’s election – to pay more attention to rates of cancer and illness in the community 600 kilometres north of Edmonton.

Many people believe oilsands development and major forestry mills in Fort McMurray, which is upstream from Fort Chipewyan, have led to contamination of the water and wildlife in the region.

Emotions ran high as the crowd listened to stories from people who have lost loved ones to cancer. The community of 1,200 has seen six deaths in the past month. Some who planned to attend the rally were instead at home attending a wake.

“I left in 1960. I left everybody behind, and now they’re all gone from cancer,” sobbed Elizabeth Kusiak as she listened to a song performed to honour the dead. She said she knows of six relatives who have died from cancer.

Concerns about the rates of illness in the community were first raised by Dr. John O’Connor after he arrived in 2001. O’Conner noticed an unusually high incidence of cholangiocarcinoma, a rare cancer of the bile duct.

“A population of 1,200, I constantly compared to my much larger practice in Fort McMurray. And, as time went on, I began to realize I appeared to being seeing stuff here that I shouldn’t be seeing in such numbers,” he said.

“The various cancers, the auto-immune diseases, the number of people with diabetes, renal failure, hypertension, and then certain specific types of cancer – that really bothered me.”

A study by epidemiologists at the Alberta Cancer Board released in 2006 found overall rates of cancer in the community were comparable to the provincial average. It found that while the rate of cholangiocarcinoma was unusual for the size of the community, it was still not completely unexpected.

O’Conner, who currently splits his time between Nova Scotia and another northern Alberta community, told the crowd he was nervous about speaking. He said later that Health Canada’s concerns that he may have raised undue alarm in the community are still being considered by the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons.

But O’Connor also said it was important for him to stand in solidarity with the community.

“I didn’t raise undue alarm. In fact, I sounded a signal that, for me, was of great concern – that I was seeing illnesses in a community that, for such a pristine community so far north, that I felt I shouldn’t be seeing.”

O’Conner was quick to say he wasn’t trying to put any blame on oilsands developments, but rather just wants further study to be done on the community.

Stephanie Courtoreille, whose cousin, Grant, died of cancer in January, says she also doesn’t want a halt to oilsands development, but thinks it should be slowed while studies are done on the community.

She cried and slowly folded and unfolded a piece of paper as she told the crowd that she no longer considers Fort Chipewyan a safe place to take her family after she finishes school.

“What I don’t understand is, why do I have to leave my home when my family’s been here longer than the oil companies?

Organizer George Poitras said the community wants answers, not to disrupt economic progress.

“The health issues, the cancers we’re observing, we don’t know what’s contributing to them. That’s why we want the brakes put on (development),” he said.

“Let’s stop, let’s look at this, let’s examine it. And if it’s not attributable to the oilsands activity, what’s it attributable to?”

One way to find out would be a baseline health study, said O’Connor.

He thinks such a study would be the only way to find out what’s really going on in Fort Chip.

“I think it’s the only way to know how well is a community, how sick is a community,” he said.

“A baseline health study is comprehensive, but not unwieldy, it’s not difficult to do. We’ve only got 1,200 people up there. It could be done very, very quickly and fully.

“Then we’d know exactly what the community’s about.”

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