Community, chief in shock after doctor fired for unexplained reasons

Brandi Morin
APTN National News
Confusion and outrage erupted in Fort Chipewyan in the days following the sudden dismissal of Dr. John O’Connor from the Nunee Health Board.

Many residents told APTN that they were not told about the decision to remove O’Connor, including Athabasca Fort Chipewyan (AFCFN) Chief Allan Adam.

Adam has worked alongside O’Connor over the years advocating for his community about environmental issues.

More than a decade ago, O’Connor made International headlines when he reported that he believed higher than normal cancer rates and other illnesses in Fort Chip are linked to tar sands activity due to containments spreading onto the land, flowing downstream and into Lake Athabasca.

Adam was out of town when O’Connor was fired and was taken by surprise when he learned of the news.

He told APTN National News he stands by O’Connor and is on his way home to Fort Chip to investigate the situation.

Elder Janet Voyageur, a member of AFCFN, said she was shocked when she heard the news.

“He’s (O’Connor) been helping us out for years with the tar sands and then they terminate him?” said Voyageur. “I don’t think that’s fair. He was there and he worked for us. He almost got canned for helping us and then it’s like stabbing him in the back!”

Voyageur added that a lot of community members, especially elders, are worried about the interim medical services and about transitioning over to new doctors, something that isn’t easy to do.

The Nunee Health Board Society, which is made up of representatives from AFCFN, the Mikisew Cree First Nation, the Metis Association, an elder member and community member, circulated a letter addressed to the residents of Fort Chipewyan Tuesday:

“Over the past few days there has been a great deal of miscommunication about physician services at Nunee and Dr. O’Connor. This has caused unnecessary fear and confusion. As the Board of Directors of Nunee, we are concerned by this and have prepared this message so all residents receive accurate information.”


On May 08, the Board informed O’Connor that it no longer required his services to provide on-call coverage after regular clinic hours or on the weekends.

According to the letter, Dr. Esther Tailfeathers, who was working in the community for the last three years, but left suddenly last month, will return once she is back from holidays.

In the interim there are two AHS doctors providing on-call services to the community.

The Board of Directors and the Health Director will continue to work with Alberta Health Services to recruit another doctor who would like to provide clinics in Fort Chipewyan.

This person would rotate into the community with Tailfeathers.

O’Connor is still looking for answers as to why he was let go and the manner in which it was done.

“I can’t get my head around this,” he said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

Mikisew Cree Chief Steve Courtoreille told the Edmonton Journal Monday that O’Connor hasn’t been in Fort Chip for a number of years.

“So how can he be a strong advocate when he is not in the community to come and talk with us and talk to the people?”

O’Connor said Courtoreille was in touch with him just two weeks before the provincial election.

According to O’Connor, Courtoreille asked for an update on the current cancer related health issues before a meeting with then Premier Jim Prentice.

O’Connor said no mention of conflict or of his upcoming removal was raised.

O’Connor has worked in Fort Chip for almost 16 years and for the past seven years has provided on-call care and telehealth services.

He is well connected to the community and keeps in touch with residents on a regular basis and said if he was asked to go back to Fort Chip he would do it “in a heartbeat.”

When asked about whether he believes industry or government officials were behind his dismissal because of the concerns he’s raised about the environmental and health effects of the tar sands, O’Connor said he thinks it may be a stretch to start pointing fingers.

“I think it’s a local issue. I don’t know what goes on firsthand on a local level but…who knows. It’s been so strange,” he said.

He added that his phone has been ringing off the hook from people relaying messages of support for him.

He’s also offered to Chief Adam to continue to provide medical services to ACFN members.

And although he’s hurt by the Nunee Health Board’s decision to remove him, right now his focus is to continue to press for a reason why.

“I need to know an answer for myself and for my own peace of mind,” he said.

[email protected]

Contribute Button