By Vincent McDermott
Fort Chipewyan’s aboriginal leadership is preparing to finance an independent community cancer study if the government does not promise one soon.
“Getting money to fund an independent study is definitely something we are seriously looking at and discussing,” said Chief Steve Courtoreille of the Mikisew Cree First Nation. “It’s disappointing that a man who took an oath to protect people and their health is not acting quickly, but he gets his direction from his superiors.”
Courtoreille made the comments on Wednesday morning, two weeks after Alberta’s chief medical officer Dr. James Talbot published statistics showing lung, cervical and bile duct cancers were higher than the provincial average.
“We’ve been lobbying this for years. Everyone knows we have and we’ve seen nothing. This is why we feel like we’re being swept under the rug,” said Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. "The talk is there. We are looking at funding it ourselves."
Talbot suggested most lung cancers were caused by tobacco use, and attributed cervical cancers to poor access to pap smears and HPV vaccines in Fort Chipewyan. With regards to biliary tract cancer, the study lists several risk factors not related to chemical exposure.
They include family history, old age, obesity, alcoholism, and diabetes. Factors that increase disease exposure include HIV, smoking, pancreaitis, as well as exposure to asbestos, radon and dioxin.
Talbot has not dismissed a thorough study investigating cancers, but says dialogue between Fort Chipewyan and the province must first improve so research parameters can be established.
“What we need to do in this situation is engage with the community and determine exactly what their concerns are and exactly what they would like measured,” Talbot said when his study was first published. “We would also want to bring in experts who would give them some idea of the likelihood of success for that and that’s why we need someone who is a researcher who has credibility carry the study forward.”
The March paper has not dissuaded Fort Chipewyan’s aboriginal leadership. ACFN and MCFN have both acknowledged the paper’s potential for future research.
Yet, the report has been criticized for not offering any suggestions towards fighting cancer, and for only speculating about cancer sources, particularly biliary tract cancer.
“It was a valuable summary of numbers, but that’s it,” said Courtoreille. “It doesn’t surprise me. A lot of questions are still unanswered. The community still has a lot of health care needs to be taken care of. It’s a shame we might have to be the ones to find out the truth for ourselves.”
ACFN spokesperson Eriel Deranger also says it is hypocritical that the Alberta Energy Regulator has demanded Calgary-based Baytex install pollution-control equipment near Peace River by the end of the summer, after residents became concerned about health problems in the area.
"We've had no study or research done in the region, but a community to the southwest of us that is non-indigenous has already had this done," she said.
Courtoreille would not comment on the details of the study, how it would be financed, or who would do it, saying they were still in the planning stages.
Representatives from the Fort Chipewyan Metis could not be reached, but Courtoreille and Adam both confirmed their participation.
In February, Fort Chipewyan’s aboriginal leadership cancelled a meeting with Alberta Health over the report.
The MCFN, ACFN and Nunee Health Authority wanted to view an advance copy of the report to prepare questions for the meeting. Alberta Health refused. They argued it was standard procedure for the province to first review the data with community leaders and provide context.
When the band filed a FOIP request via the Alberta Liberal Party, the province released the information to the public.