Health Concerns in Fort Chipewyan: "'Answers' Lead to Questions"

This is the first part of a four part special on Health Concerns in Fort Chipewyan.

Part 1 — "'Answers' Lead to Questions" examines the first provincial study looking into health concerns of the community.

Part 2 — "Demands for Further Study" outlines the circumstances that led to the second health study.

Part 3 — "Concerns Confirmed" discusses the results and implications of the second study, which found elevated rates of cancers and other autoimmune diseases.

Part 4 — "A Community Searches for Answers" explores public health concerns in Fort Chipewyan today.


'Answers' Lead to Questions

The Alberta Government has conducted two public health studies of Fort Chipewyan. Rather than providing insight into the community's health, the studies have been more a source of controversy, raising as many questions as answers. Fort Chipewyan Health Data Analysis, the initial study, was the least controversial of the two, yet still raised serious doubts over the sincerity of the province's pledge to provide an objective, comprehensive assessment of the community's health.

Released in 2006, the study indicated that although levels of renal failure and lupus were elevated, cancer rates fell within an acceptable range. This was contrary to what the community's health officials and elders were claiming. They believed that cancer rates and other diseases in Fort Chipewyan were abnormally high — and rising.

However, the study did nothing to quell concerns in the community. In fact the suspicious circumstances surrounding the study's release and methodology emboldened residents to speak out further.

The province had promised a year long study, which would include the community in the evaluation, to ensure that a proper and thorough public health analysis was conducted. Yet, months after announcing the study, the province came out with its findings. Further, it was released at the licensing hearing for Suncor's Voyageur project, which Fort Chipewyan residents had been opposing, citing the potential impact existing development was playing on their health.

The methodology and data used in the study raised further doubts. For example, the study's authors counted and categorized types of cancers found within the community. Yet, it separated cases of leukemia from its hematopoietics count. Hematopoietics is a form of blood cancer which leukemia falls under. If combined, the study would have shown that these cancers of the blood were double the expected rate. The separation allowed the Alberta Government to claim that the community's cancer rates were not elevated. The province has yet to provide an explanation as to why leukemia and hematopoietics cases were counted separately.




Concerns also emerged after the study's lead author admitted to using incomplete data for the years included in the analysis. This was attributed to the study's reliance solely on the province's cancer database, which provided a limited understanding of health conditions within Fort Chipewyan. Inclusion of medical charts and other information from community health officials and residents — as was initially promised — could have supplemented the missing data, but did not occur.

Despite concerns over the timing of the release, categorization of data, and use of incomplete data sets, the study concluded that health concerns expressed by health officials and community residents were unwarranted. Cancer rates were not elevated. The Alberta Government dismissed any criticism and claimed that lingering concerns within the community were the result of media sensationalism, rather than any legitimate flaw with its analysis.

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