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The 'Petroleum Party' in full cry about Neil Young; and what Northwestern Alberta doctors fear

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John O'Connor

Here in Alberta, the Petroleum Party dominates everything -- the federal government, the provincial government, the government benches in the Legislature, the opposition benches in the same place, the media and, it turns out, parts of the medical profession as well.

Refusal to bend to the will of this nearly omnipotent and omnipresent industry, with its vast wealth and numberless retainers, hirelings and toadies in government and media can be a risky proposition -- as we have all seen with the hysterical and unremitting national campaign against rocker Neil Young throughout the past few days.

Young's crime? Publicly supporting a northern Alberta First Nation that's fighting Bitumen Sands expansion on its traditional land. That Young has given as good as he got, and held his own against this tide of rage and fury, has given this story a David-and-Goliath quality that has many ordinary Canadians shaking their heads and wondering, "What are they afraid of?"

Still, it was shocking to read in the local press that physicians in northwest Alberta's Peace River region are not only afraid to speak out about the impact on humans and the environment of oil and gas activity there, but that some of them have refused to treat patients who thought their health problems might be related to petroleum industry emissions. According to Edmonton Journal reporter Sheila Pratt, one medical lab even refused to process a patient's medical tests!

In the case of the doctors and of the lab, presumably, they were afraid that their investigations might reveal the petroleum industry was the cause of someone's health problems. Doing that, they knew, could cause big problems -- both for patients in a region economically dependent on petroleum development and for any professional who dares to challenge the orthodoxies of approved politics and science in Alberta.

In her unusual and courageous report, Pratt, a former senior editor at the Journal who obviously still retains some influence there, told how the documents she had obtained in advance of an inquiry into smells and health around a sulphur-rich oilfield showed how one doctor advised patients to contact an environmental lawyer if they wanted to deal with what ailed them, their families and their communities.

Pratt came as close as she could to explaining why the consequences of challenging the Petroleum Party can be much more devastating for professionals like physicians, who depend on their credentials to earn a living, than for a rock musician who resides safely in the Republic to the south or even a plain old garden variety environmental activist.

Pratt quoted a toxicology expert from Ontario who was hired by the Calgary-based Alberta Energy Regulator, the industry-funded corporation that is supposed to regulate oil, gas and coal development in this province, to write a report on the conflict between a bitumen processor near Peace River and its human neighbours.

"Physicians are quite frankly afraid to diagnose health conditions linked to the oil and gas industry," the toxicologist was quoted as saying in Pratt's report.

According to the news story, the toxicologist "heard several times about the case of Dr. John O'Connor, who was threatened with loss of his licence after raising an alarm about cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan."

O'Connor practiced medicine in 2003 in the predominantly First Nations communities of Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan, which are about 280 kilometres north of Fort McMurray and both downstream and downwind of the largest Bitumen Sands mining and processing operations.

Both the federal and provincial governments harshly criticized O'Connor for daring to suggest the industry might have caused serious health problems among residents of the communities, including unusually high rates of blood, colon, bile duct and liver cancer.

The provincial government disputed O'Connor’s conclusions. In 2007, Health Canada physicians laid four complaints of professional misconduct against him with the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons, including blocking access to files, billing irregularities, causing mistrust of government in Fort Chipewyan and "undue alarm" among residents of the community.

The charges could have resulted in O'Connor losing his ability to work as a physician.

Notwithstanding the province's earlier claims, in 2009 the Alberta Cancer Board released a study that did find higher-than-expected rates of some cancers among residents in Fort Chip -- although that study did not identify a cause.

Moreover, O'Connor was eventually cleared of all the charges against him.

But you'd never know of his exoneration if you believed the vicious jeremiad against O'Connor published just last week on national TV by oil industry attack poodle Ezra Levant, as he continued the smear campaign against the physician, who still practices in the region.

A warning to readers tempted to watch this ugly episode of Levant's program: it is nauseating stuff.

But Levant's broadside against O'Connor was merely a sidebar to his vilification of Young, who for obvious reasons was the Petroleum Party's principal target. Accordingly, the musician and songwriter was the victim of a stream of vituperation and character assassination from virtually every quarter of the mainstream media, which remains in full cry.

Nevertheless, what happened to O'Connor -- and what continues to happen to him -- is a clear illustration of why physicians in northwestern Alberta at least, unlike the many foes of the outspoken rock 'n' roll musician, are not just being hysterical or paranoid when they say they don't want to touch the health impacts of the petroleum industry with the proverbial bargepole.

Still, the question remains a good one: What does the Petroleum Party have to fear that accounts for this viciousness?

Have they concluded there’s some danger democracy might beak out again in Canada, or even here in Alberta?

It seems likely the attacks on Young will continue for a while yet, quite possibly with increasing frenzy -- especially if the musician continues to be able to dish it back as effectively as his foes dish it out.

They will also seek new targets, some of whom are also quite capable of defending themselves and their arguments -- for example, such as environmentalist and former U.S. vice-president Al Gore, whom Alberta Premier Alison Redford risibly promises to set straight immediately with a disciplinary knuckle rap.

For its part, the Alberta government has promised to release more information on cancer rates in Fort Chip very soon. But don't count on anyone ponying up the money needed for a rigorous and credible scientific study.

We don't really do science in this part of the world any more if the Petroleum Party has no use for it.

The hearing by the industry-owned "regulator" also held sessions yesterday in Peace River, and Pratt was back to cover them.

The story, as they say, continues.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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