Examples of Lea Storry's journalism work.

These stories can be found online at http://www.srj.ca

Fort Chipewyan doctor is under the knife

By LEA STORRY, SRJ Editor 14.MAR.07

Complaint filed against Dr. John O’Connor

A complaint has been filed against Dr. John O’Connor – possibly putting his future at risk. The Fort Chipewyan community physician has publicly expressed concern over what appears to be abnormally high cancer and other disease rates in that community. He is currently facing an investigation by the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons (CPSA) after a complaint was brought forward by Health Canada.

Details of the complaint are unknown and CPSA spokesperson Kelly Eby said they cannot comment.

“If there is a complaint against a physician we investigate,” asserted Eby, manager of communications, CPSA.

Carole Saindon, Health Canada spokesperson, noted the federal agency also won’t comment and won’t reveal who brought the complaint forward.

“We don’t want to prejudge any procedure.”

Fort McMurray-Athabasca Member of Parliament (MP) Brian Jean is staying out of the fray.

“It’s a matter for the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta,” Jean said. “As far as what’s going on I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to comment on Dr. O’Connor or on an issue which doesn’t fall under federal jurisdiction.”

The Northern Lights Health Region (NHLR) in Fort McMurray won’t comment on the matter either. Stephanie Hackett, communications for the NHLR, said O’Connor is technically an employee of Alberta Health and Wellness, the provincial health department.

A report, released by Alberta Health and Wellness this past July that was commissioned in response to the concerns raised by O’Connor the year before, found cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan are not unusual. The findings were not well accepted by the doctor nor by a number of Fort Chipewyan community leaders who, as reported earlier in the Slave River Journal on July, 25, 2006, found the report lacking and inadequate.

Some thought the report, Summary of Findings: Fort Chipewyan Health Data Analysis, was produced too quickly to coincide with an Alberta Energy Utilities Board (EUB) hearing in Fort McMurray. Others felt the data wasn’t properly collected.

But Alberta Health and Wellness thinks differently.

“We put together a panel of experts to look into the cases and this team found this wasn’t the case [of higher than normal cancer rates],” commented Howard May, Alberta Health and Wellness communications.

May said O’Connor has persisted in his claims and when Health and Wellness asked to look into the doctor’s records, he wouldn’t allow it.

“We repeatedly asked him to give us evidence so we could substantiate his claims. He’s required to do this by law.”

According to Health and Wellness communications, the Alberta government agency played no role in making the complaint although it still stands by its controversial report.

“We don’t want people in the community to be concerned when we don’t have any evidence.”

The report was released during the Alberta Energy Board hearings into a large Syncrude expansion application hearing in July in Fort McMurray. Some people in Fort Chipewyan feel that was no coincidence and that the two are related – that the report was ‘friendly’ to the oil sands industry.

However, O’Connor has stated he’s not pointing fingers in any direction – he just wants answers from a proper analysis of the situation.

O’Connor is currently working in Nova Scotia.

“I’m staying out of the media for now,” he told the SRJ in a phone interview Friday.

“I would be very happy to talk to you, but right now it’s not an option until the College of Physicians does their bit.”

Physicians rally behind Dr. O’Connor

By LEA STORRY, SRJ Editor 04.APR.07

More support for Fort Chipewyan physician Dr. John O’Connor is forming around a resolution. The Alberta Medical Association has unanimously backed this document, which calls for doctors to be able to speak out on patients’ behalf without discrimination.

“I think as physicians it’s kind of our duty to speak out,” stated Dr. Sandra Corbett, a psychiatrist in Fort McMurray and also local president of the Northern Lights Medical Staff Association. “I would expect my physician to do it and bring problems to people’s attention.”

O’Connor is currently facing an investigation by the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons after a complaint was brought forward by Health Canada. The doctor has publicly expressed concern over cancer and other disease rates in Fort Chipewyan. This was the impetus for Corbett to bring the resolution forward.

“Basically the concern was when noting these occurrences; one has to speak out so we can learn how to treat them.”

Such is Dr. O’Connor’s case, added Corbett; he saw something unusual and called for it to be studied.

Corbett suggested O’Connor’s ordeal will only silence other doctors in the future.

“This is how we found AIDS. A doctor in San Francisco found unusual symptoms and said something about it. The same kind of thing happened with West Nile. They [doctors] shouldn’t be in fear.”

According to Corbett, the resolution will be forwarded to Health Canada.

“I’m hoping Health Canada will take a look at what it has done and not do it in the future. Physicians need to feel safe to speak out.”

O’Connor is currently staying out of the media

Stelmach: On O'Connor

By LEA STORRY, SRJ Editor 18.APR.07

The premier of Alberta is towing the Alberta Health and Wellness line when it comes to outspoken Fort Chipewyan physician Dr. John O’Connor.

“The premier [Ed Stelmach] indicated he’s confident in the work of Alberta Health and Wellness,” noted David Sands, communications manager, Office of the Premier.

A report was released by Alberta Health and Wellness this past July in response to cancer concerns raised by O’Connor the year before. Now the doctor is currently facing an investigation by the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons (CPSA) after a complaint was brought forward by Health Canada.

According to the Office of the Premier, Stelmach wants the physician to come forward with his data.

“[T]here is concern Dr. O’Connor has findings we don’t have and the premier wants to ensure the information is made available to Alberta Heath and Wellness and appropriate authorities.”

In the past, Alberta Health and Wellness has claimed it repeatedly asked O’Connor to share evidence to substantiate claims of higher cancer rates, but the doctor refused.

Dr. O’Connor cleared

By LEA STORRY, SRJ Editor 04.JUL.07

Finally – an answer for Fort Chipewyan physician Dr. John O’Connor. The Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons (CPSA) has dismissed a complaint against him.

“The news couldn’t be better,” said O’Connor. “The college has thrown out the complaint.”

An investigation had been launched by the CPSA after a complaint was brought forward by Health Canada in March. O’Connor added he heard the latest news through his lawyer, Donald Cranston of Bennett Jones, just after lunch on Friday, June 29.

“The lawyer said usually one would have to go to Edmonton and sit down with the college, but in this case there were no grounds for the complaint.”

The Fort Chipewyan physician has publicly expressed concern over abnormally high cancer and other disease rates in that community. Some leaders in Chip felt the investigation was a tactic to put a muzzle on the doctor – something O’Connor asserted won’t happen.

“The news is great, but it’s hard to put the process back to the beginning,” admitted O’Connor. “This was a delay, but we’re still calling for the base line health study and environmental studies which need to be done.”

Moving to the east coast is still in the physician’s plans. He’ll spend three weeks in Barrington Passage, Nova Scotia and one week in the Fort McMurray area. He noted he doesn’t plan on dropping the concerns about cancer.

“I will continue being involved if I have to lead it or be behind the scenes or in the middle of the pack.”

A colleague of O’Connor’s, Dr. Liam Griffin, will be arriving in Fort Chipewyan in the fall.

“He’s very good and I’ll stay in touch with him and in touch with Fort Chip.” Letters of support have been pouring in from all over the world to O’Connor.

National and international media have also picked up the story including the Los Angeles Times who are working on a piece about Fort Chipewyan.

“The bottom line is this is going to keep Fort Chip in the spotlight. All we want is to solve the issues once and for all.”


The Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons (CPSA) was contacted, but did not respond.

Paddling the Slave River - anyone can do it!


The roar of the mighty Slave River is enough to scare many people away from its shoreline. But there are a few who are challenged by the rushing water and actually dive right onto it with kayaks.

“Fort Smith has a pretty strong group of paddlers,” said Saskia van Mourik, technical director Alberta Whitewater Association. Van Mourik was in Smith to teach an instructor training course.

“The Slave has a little bit of everything – runs for all levels of paddlers. Most of the popular runs are class 3, others are class 4.”

Rapids are classified from one to six. Van Mourik said classing a rapid is subjective.

“It depends on how remote the river is and if there is big water and whirlpools. Consequences also factor in. A rapid could be a class 3, but you also have to look at how far you have to go for help.”

Unique to the river is the location. Since Fort Smith is off the beaten path, many Smith paddlers are isolated.

“There’s enough information out there. You can read about paddling and watch online stuff to get exposure.”

Van Mourik will be back up North from Calgary later in July to deliver more instructional clinics. She enjoys the warm Slave water as many rivers in Alberta are chilly from glacier run-off.

“The Slave isn’t bad – it’s warming up, but the water is very high right now.” After each river opens up in the spring, there are always things to find. “Wood comes down river and blocks channels. Holes get bigger and channels get smaller. It’s like a new river.”

Before getting into the Slave, van Mourik suggests beginners try boating in a swimming pool.

“Getting into the pool and into clean and warm water will be more comfortable. Then you can move into running water.”

According to van Mourik, the most important thing is paddling at your own pace. “Every river is scary for anyone who has never paddled before. But there are always exit points. You can always walk (portage) a rapid if you want.”

Impeached: Frieda Martselos booted as Smith's SRFN chief

By LEA STORRY, SRJ Editor 09.MAY.07

Fort Smith’s Salt River First Nation (SRFN) is without a chief. Frieda Martselos was removed from office on Monday, May 7 after a Special Council Meeting was called by the department of Indian and Northern Affairs (INAC) regional office out of Yellowknife and chaired by Noeline Villebrun, a SRFN member and past Dene National Chief.

“Basically, the BCR [Band Council Resolution] was straight forward and the removal of the chief was based on 21 items,” explained Villebrun.

Martselos had been in office less than a week before her impeachment. However, SRFN councillors cited Martselos for engaging in conduct contrary to customs, constitution and orderly administration of the SRFN in that short time.

“You can’t come in and do these types of things. You can’t have negative attitudes and behaviours and this is why we have bylaws in place,” said Villebrun.

Terminating employees, changing locks, authorizing the removal of band records and not contacting council members or calling meetings were some actions listed among the 21 items.

“Everyone, the council, the chief and DIAND [department of Indian and Northern Affairs], were invited to come to the meeting. Chief Martselos refused. Another councillor didn’t attend either.”

According to the SFRN council, Jolene Beaver had an excused absence. Other SRFN councillors at the meeting were Mike Beaver, Chris Bird, Toni Heron and Sonny MacDonald.

“DIAND was here to make sure things are adhered to, not to tell us what to do,” asserted Villebrun. “They recognize it’s an internal matter and are also recognizing the BCR as removing the chief.”

Villebrun stated the bylaws of SRFN must be adhered to at all times in order for the “health and well-being of our nation. We need collaboration to work together.”

Meanwhile, Martselos physically refused to leave the chief’s office at the SRFN facility on Monday, May 7. She refused to comment on the events surrounding her impeachment and told the SRJ reporter to leave. At press time, Tuesday, May 8, the former chief was still staging a sit-in with supporters.

Next step for SRFN

Mike Beaver, SRFN councillor, said future plans would have to be discussed with the SRFN membership.

Doors locked

Last Friday, May, 4, some SRFN employees showed up at the Band Office to find doors locked. David Poitras, SRFN education and culture manager, had been busy putting together a cultural event for youth for the upcoming week.

“I’ll have to postpone it for two or three weeks until the politicians sort out their stuff.”

He echoed the same sentiment after what transpired on Monday, May 7.

“There very much needs to be a clear separation of work and politics. The Town has an election every three years and staff doesn’t have to go through this turmoil.”

INAC support

The department of Indian and Northern Affairs (INAC) regional office in Yellowknife said it had been contacted by SRFN.

“We’ve been called, but we didn’t provide any advice, just information,” said George Cleary, director, Indian and Inuit services NWT region. “We offer support and we offer arbitration.”

Cleary noted this was a governance issue between the chief and council and an internal matter.

“The band was created as a landless band so it’s outside the Indian Act. It’s a custom election band and they have their own election process.”