Canada’s Petro-State: Fox Guarding the Henhouse?

We Americans don’t have all that much regard for foreigners, do we? Some countries seem to be brimming with jihadists. Others might bring to mind illegal immigrants. Perhaps others are stealing our jobs with their cheap labor. But Canada is different. For many Americans, Canada is almost like us. We may demand secure borders, but we don’t really mean that border.

And that’s why it would be so surprising if we were to find Canada behaving like a petro-state dictatorship.

But that’s just about what I found during my recent visit to the tar sands region of Alberta last week. It looks as though the federal and provincial governments have become so dependent on oil money that basic elements of just governance now seem like quaint throwbacks to a more innocent era.

I began to suspect this at last week’s Healing Walk in Fort McMurray, Alberta, when First Nations leaders repeated again and again the nearly identical chorus: Our land and water is being destroyed by industrial contamination, our native people are faced with de facto genocide, and the government refuses even to acknowledge our peril. In fact, the government actively suppresses evidence of our suffering.

It sounded bad. But then I heard from a doctor named John O’Connor, and his story removed all doubt.

Dr. O’Connor is a family practice physician from Fort McMurray, in the heart of the tar sands district of Alberta. In 2006, he began treating patients in the tiny indigenous community of Fort Chipewyan, 150 miles downstream from “Fort Mac” and the tar sands operations. No sooner did he arrive than he began to hear stories from the community elders of ominous changes in the environment. In stark contrast to what they grew up with, they could no longer drink the water; fish and wildlife routinely showed grotesque deformities; game and fish were becoming scarce; their own people were suffering from  mysterious illnesses.

Dr. John O'Connor, Fort Chipewyan

Dr. John O’Connor, Fort Chipewyan

In no time, O’Connor began to see alarming patterns in those illnesses. Relatively rare cancers were appearing regularly – blood and lymphatic cancers, bile duct cancer, biliary tract and thyroid cancers. Added to those were auto-immune diseases – Lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, skin disorders and intestinal disorders.

“In the population that was only 850,” O’Connor said in an interview last week, “it was just phenomenal. It didn’t make any sense.”

People can get sick for lots of reasons, and O’Connor knows that. But given what he was seeing, he came to suspect that the tar sands industry, a long way up the Athabasca River, had something to do with it. Back then, 80 percent of the community survived by eating off the land, its animals and fish. It looked to O’Connor as though the deteriorating water must be making the people and animals sick.

So O’Connor did what any faithful doctor would do: He reported his findings and suspicions to Health Canada, the agency that oversaw his work in Fort Chip. This is Canada. Innocent lives hang in the balance. They’d get to the bottom of this, wouldn’t they?

Well, this is the new Canada: the Canada that sits on the second largest oil reserves in the world; the Canada whose global power is tied up with oil and gas. In this Canada, the villain is not the pollution that poisons indigenous families. In this Canada, the villain is the meddlesome doctor who has begun to connect the dots. And so Health Canada leveled numerous charges against O’Connor, including billing inconsistencies and causing “undue alarm” in Fort Chipewyan. For almost three years, O’Connor worked to defend himself against the charges, until they were finally dropped.

The most ironic was the very idea of “undue alarm.”

Tar sands mining and tailing ponds cover hundreds of miles in Alberta's former forests

Tar sands mining and tailing ponds cover hundreds of miles in Alberta’s former forests

“The community had tried for years on its own to have its voice heard,” O’Connor said. “The fishermen tried on two occasions—they collected deformed fish from the lake and stored them for transportation out to Edmonton and maybe beyond for authorities to look at, and they were just left there to rot. Nobody ever picked them up. They repeatedly talked about the changes they were seeing and the illnesses in the community—and this is before I arrived in Fort Chip. They were ignored. This was an ongoing health crisis in the community and I walked into it.”

But the government’s charges had the intended effect. Throughout Alberta, doctors and laboratories were cowed into silence, rather than reporting similar findings in their own communities. And the government has continued to deny any links between tar sands mining and the cancer clusters in this otherwise unspoiled region. “They’re so cozy with the industry,” said O’Connor, “it’s nauseating.”

Since O’Connor first reported his findings – and the witch hunt that followed – non-governmental researchers have established beyond doubt that tar sands mining and processing has indeed released dangerous level of toxins into areas at least fifty miles away from the nearest tar sands site. In 2013, the Canadian National Academy of Sciences proved that in these lakes and rivers, cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) have been increasing over the last fifty years in lockstep with the increase of tar sands production. Recent years have seen up to 23 times more PAHs settling into lake sediments than in the 1960s. Furthermore, they proved that the increased tar sands pollution – mercury, benzene, arsenic, thallium, in addition to PAHs – is not “natural,” as Canadian authorities and tar sands oil companies have insisted.

Tumors and deformities affect up to 20% of Athabasca fish

Tumors and deformities affect up to 20% of Athabasca fish

Finally, the appearance of horribly deformed fish is now well understood by independent researchers. Indigenous fishermen had been collecting samples of fish with large back tumors, abnormal stomachs, lesions, deformed spines, bulging eyes and snubbed faces. But for fifteen years, they were ignored by authorities. In 2008, fishermen provided samples and waited for 13 months, only to be told that the samples couldn’t be analyzed. More recently, 200 pounds of deformed fish on ice were left to rot in Fort McMurray without ever being analyzed.

But despite the refusal of Canadian authorities to examine the evidence, research by Canadian experts and the American NOAA have established the links between the contaminants from tar sands production and the cancers and deformities found among the fishes of this region. And American researchers established similar links long ago on Ohio’s polluted industrial rivers.

Furthermore, sometimes the best expertise is local. Raymond Ladouceur, who has been fishing commercially in the region for 53 years (and has lost eight family members to cancer), told a local newspaper: “I never saw deformed fish in my younger days. We’ve been trying to get some help to figure this out. We are human beings.”

But the Alberta authorities have remained undeterred by this cloud of witnesses. A spokesman for Canada’s environment minister retorted that contaminants in these remote regions were “low compared to urban areas,” conveniently ignoring the fact that urban dwellers don’t rely on polluted rivers like the Cuyahoga or the Chicago for their daily food. Dependent upon the money coming in from tar sands operators, government authorities held to the line that any pollution is from natural bitumen outcrops on the river, despite substantial evidence to the contrary. And the authorities appear to be perfectly happy to remain uncertain, refusing to permit a comprehensive health study for communities like Fort Chipewyan. They have insisted that the oil companies play an oversight role in any study that might be done.

To this demand, Dr. O’Connor says: “That makes absolutely no sense. Industry has nothing to do with the provision of health care, it’s not part of government; it’s not part of the local infrastructure.”

And those enormous “tailing ponds” containing carcinogenic tar sands mining wastes? They cover 170 square miles, and contain six billion barrels of waste fluids, many of them precariously near the banks of the Athabasca River. Canadian environmental authorities admit that they were not involved in their design. Despite this, they insist that the ponds don’t leak. But Canadian scientists published research in 2014 estimating toxic leakage of 6.5 million liters per day into the river and ground water from the tailing ponds. Research published in 2010 found that that one single pond leaks toxic sediments at a rate of 67 liters per second.

But tar sands operators and the Alberta government offer reassurances that the tailing ponds are no problem. In their publicity brochures, they refer to tailings as “a combination of water, sand, silt and fine clay particles left over after the extraction process,” and “essentially muddy water.” No mention of arsenic, mercury, benzene, PAHs, and such unpleasant substances. No mention of why they would build massive enclosures to contain “muddy water.”

Okay, so this may be downright unpleasant, but what does it have to do with us? Well, at a minimum, there’s this: The development of approximately 5% of the tar sands reserves over the last fifty years has threatened the survival of indigenous communities at least as far as 150 miles from the tar sand operations. The U.S. is now being asked to approve a pipeline – the Keystone XL – that will increase tar sands capacity by roughly one third, and other fiercely resisted pipelines would permit even more tar sands growth. With the Keystone XL, we Americans have the opportunity to impact – for good or for ill – tar sands production that would likely destroy what remains of these native communities, and threaten even more.

The government across our northern border exhibits little interest in protecting these beleaguered communities. Maybe, just this once, our own country could take a stand for justice on behalf of indigenous peoples, and prevent this pipeline from adding to the miseries of the continent’s First Nations.

Would you be willing to join me in asking the President to do that? If so, please do so by clicking here.


  • “Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land … the LORD has sworn by himself, the Pride of Jacob: ‘I will never forget anything they have done.’” Amos 8:4,7
  • “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Jesus Christ, Matthew 25:40

Note: Special thanks to Michael Toledano of VICE Canada for excellent reporting on Canada’s oil and indigenous rights. Read his interview with Dr. John O’Connor here:

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  1. Pingback: Why We Are Praying: NO KEYSTONE XL | BelovedPlanet

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