A public tarring in Saudi Canada
The ambush happened June 11 before the House standing committee on environment and sustainable development, which is studying oil sands and water. We testified not as experts but as concerned citizens. We didn't ask to appear; the committee invited us.
As such, we naively assumed that we were doing our duty as Canadians to speak to the House about the impact of world's largest energy project on water: 130 square kilometres of waste water, acid rain, fish deformities, rare cancers and city-scale withdrawals of freshwater.
But both O'Connor and I made a terrible mistake. We assumed that all committee members would be interested in rigorous dialogue regardless of political affiliation. But that's not what Ottawa delivered. Instead, several Tory MPs subjected us to abusive Republican tactics geared to dismiss, discredit and dishonour.
For the record, O'Connor intimately knows a lot about the health of aboriginals living downstream from the oil sands. From 2001 to 2008, the family physician served the 1,200-member community of Fort Chipewyan where he is dearly beloved. In 2006, he raised some questions about the increasing number of rare blood, lymphoma and bile-duct cancers appearing in his patients.
Even since then, Health Canada has threatened to take away O'Connor's medical licence by accusing him of causing "undue alarm" in the community. The agency has also charged him with hiding medical information and overbilling his patients – allegations all disproved by Alberta's College of Physicians and Surgeons.
O'Connor, a modest and graceful man who upholds the Hippocratic oath, quietly told the committee his incredible story of political persecution. He noted that Health Canada still refuses to withdraw the charge of causing "undue alarm."
As a business and environmental reporter, I've written extensively about the oil and gas industry for two decades. My book on the tar sands, winner of the City of Calgary's W.O. Mitchell Award, argues that the project has slowly transformed the nation into a dysfunctional petro-state that governs mostly for hydrocarbons.
By video conference in Calgary, I highlighted the creation of an acid rain problem in Western Canada; the questionable recycling of waste water (it concentrates pollutants such as ammonia and chloride) and the unprecedented nature of O'Connor's persecution. I referenced several federal studies and reports.
The MPs representing the Liberal, NDP and Bloc Québécois asked many civil questions but showed an uneven grasp of tar sands operations. But the four Conservative MPs on the committee, Peter Braid, Mark Warawa, Blaine Calkins and Jeff Watson, spent most of their time attacking our credibility. They didn't want to talk about water.
Like members of some strange Communist gang, they assumed that Dr. O'Connor was a natural born liar. They insinuated that he had no credibility because he wasn't an industry cancer professional or a highly degreed expert. What, after all, would a family physician know about rare bile-duct cancers, even though his father died of one? They suggested that a 30 per cent higher-than-expected rate for cancers in the community must be a lifestyle issue. In other words, the people living downstream of the tar sands had simply chosen to make themselves cancerous.
Then they questioned O'Connor's patriotism. In May, both O'Connor and I accepted an invitation by Greenpeace to speak in Norway. O'Connor courageously told Norwegians, public investors in the tar sands via their state-owned company Statoilhydro, that unfettered tar-sands development was creating a real public health problem in Fort Chipewyan. The Tories ever so slyly accused O'Connor of taking part in unCanadian activities.
Then came my turn. As a veteran reporter, I didn't expect kid glove treatment but thought the Tories might want to know more about acid rain or the unsustainability of groundwater withdrawals. But they expressed no interest in the conservation of trees and water. They simply belittled me for writing an opinion piece about how oil hinders democracy. They couldn't even hear the irony in their own frat-boy mockery.
At the end of the session, both O'Connor and I reflected on the hearing in disbelief. In Norway, we civilly engaged investors, politicians and environmental groups. We had the right to express differing opinions. We enjoyed the great freedom of association. Yet in Canada, several so-called parliamentarians openly belittled these basic freedoms.
To O'Connor, the Tory MPs "totally had no interest in any of the concerns of the people of Fort Chipewyan." Incredibly, many of the parliamentarians choose to represent the resource instead of ordinary citizens. Not one took up the call for a proper public health study.
The political tarring, just normal conduct in Ottawa, left O'Connor and I with one disturbing question: Is this the parliamentary future for Saudi Canada, the world's largest supplier of oil to the United States?
Andrew Nikiforuk is the author of Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent.