Monday, June 29, 2009

What you find out when you go behind the newspaper's back

Andrew Nikiforuk being interviewed on Norwegian television.

One of the benefits of having time on one’s hand is that one can follow-up on what seem to be inflammatory statements that appear in the media. The original source often does not back up the assertions being made.

Such a case in point was an op-ed column appearing in today’s edition of The Toronto Star. The writer is an award-winning journalist, Andrew Nikiforuk. In a piece entitled, A Public Tarring in Saudi Canada, he is moaning about an appearance on June 11 of this year that he and a family physician, Dr. John O’Connor, made before a parliamentary committee dealing with the environment and sustainable development.

The committee is looking into the matter of the troubled oil sands development in Alberta and it heard from a number of witnesses before inviting these two to make presentations concerning the native residents of Fort Chipewayan, downstream from the oil sands projects.

Both witnesses were given 10 minutes each of uninterrupted time to make their presentations before the floor was open for questions from members of the committee. Each member was given 5 minutes to ask questions, with a slightly shorter period for follow-up questions after the first go-around.

According to Nikiforuk, he and O’Connor were sandbagged by the 4 Conservative members on the committee. The Liberal, NDP and Bloc members were civil, but “unevenly” informed about the oil sands and the environment, says Nikiforuk.

Earlier this month, Dr. John O'Connor, a dedicated family physician, and I got badly tarred by another one of Ottawa's disturbing political gangs.
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.

Note the allegations and the choice of language. O’Connor is “a dedicated family physician”. Did you ever meet a family physician that wasn’t? Does this give him some cachet that an ordinary family doctor doesn’t have? They were “ambushed” by a “political gang.” They were not there as experts but as “concerned citizens”. They were invited and did not seek the audience.


They have both presented themselves as people with some knowledge and information to shed on the environmental and health concerns related to the oil sands industry, which is exactly why they got invited to make presentations. Neither could make the pretense of ordinary citizens (that would be me and I wasn’t invited), nor, given the fact that Nikiforuk has been writing about this stuff for 20 years and has authored a book on the subject can he (a) claim to be naïve, or (b) disclaim some expertise.

Here is how he self-describes his knowledge in the Star piece:

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.

He and O’Connor went to Norway as part of a Greenpeace delegation whose purpose was to convince the Norwegians not to invest in the oils sands developments. How many “ordinary citizens” do that?

Here is his description of how he and O’Connor were treated by the Conservatives on the committee:

… 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 Chipewayan. 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

“Frat-boy mockery”, “members of some strange Communist gang”?

Here is what frat boy Mark Warawa asked Dr. O’Connor when his turn came to ask questions. I will truncate it to cut to the chase.

Mark Warwa: Dr. O’Conner, you stated that there were 6 cases of cholangiocarcinoma (a rare and difficult to detect form of cancer), but isn’t it the case that there were only 2 actually identified in a subsequent study?

Dr. O’Connor: Well, yes, but there might have been 3, except the third potential victim can’t be found.

Mark Warwa: What was the purpose of your trip to Norway with Greenpeace?

Dr. O’Connor: I basically told my story. One of the things that's been a hallmark of this process in northern Alberta is that there's been no action or reaction from government unless media were involved. Actually, in 2006, the mother of Brian Jean, the Conservative MP, alerted CBC of her concerns for the health of the people at Fort Chip, and CBC were told to approach me.

Mark Warwa: In the documentary film Downstream, it appears that the blame for any health issues is pointed at the oil sands. And you've gone with Greenpeace to advocate for the removal of investment in the oil sands. Is all the focus on the oil sands? Are they the total cause of any illnesses in Fort Chipewayan?

Dr. O’Connor: I don't know. I'm only saying that the documentation from science and the illnesses that these toxins can cause may purely coincidentally correspond with what I documented in Fort Chipewayan. It's very difficult not to make the connection, but I'm not saying there is an absolute connection and that this must stop.

Does any of that sound impolite or irrelevant? In the course of a few incisive questions, Mr. Warwa got the good doctor to admit that his initial claim of the unusual form of cancer was grossly inflated. He got him to acknowledge that his purpose in his Norway trip was to spread the news of the inflated cancer rates and to get media attention. He admitted that he could not say that all the health problems in the Chipewayan community were a result of the oil sands.

This is a perfectly proper exercise in questioning a witness and one we would expect our parliamentarians to perform. You don’t just accept the version that walks in the door without testing it against other known information.

Let’s go on to another member of Mr. Nikiforuk’s rogue’s gallery of communist questioners.

Peter Braid (addressing Dr. O’Connor at the outset): I certainly appreciate the importance you place on advocacy. I think that's central to any physician's role.

Wow! That certainly hits below the belt. It is a wonder O’Connor ever recovered from the piece of inordinate impertinence.

Peter Braid: In an earlier question, I think Mr. Calkins referred to the unfortunate higher incidence of diabetes among the aboriginal population. I'm not a scientist or a physician, but as I understand it, one of the reasons for that unfortunate higher incidence is the role of genetics. Have you considered what role, if any, genetics may play with respect to the issues you're speaking about in Fort Chip?

Dr. O’Connor: It could play a part. That is why I left it out there as a question.

Does that sound like somebody making a case for the aboriginals being responsible for their own cancer? It is basic medical science to screen out all relevant possibilities to determine both the illnesses and their causes. These are perfectly acceptable questions.

Blaine Calkins, the other member of the gang of four, got Dr. O’Connor to admit that he did not know very much about the incidence of other health factors amongst the Chipewayans, such as smoking, that might cause more serious diseases. He also got the doctor to admit that he didn’t know very much about bacteria and viruses that effect the strange appearance of the kind of fish eaten by the natives. Again, these are perfectly relevant questions for determining health issues and environmental factors that might explain the observations.

Peter Braid (speaking to Mr. Nikiforuk at the outset): Mr. Nikiforuk, your perspective on the oil sands is critical. I'm just trying to understand what your suggestions or your recommendations are with respect to the ongoing development of the oil sands, how it might be sustainable, and quite frankly, because you seem to be advocating this, how we replace our carbon-based energy system in the world.

Ohmygosh! He is not the slightest bit interested in what Nikiforuk has to say. How did he even get on this committee?

In fact, the only member of the committee to really go after Nikiforuk was Jeff Watson who wanted the journalist to clarify a hyperbolic column he had written comparing Canadian agencies to the old Soviet politburo. That culminated in a bit of an uproar on the committee, but aside from the aggressiveness of Watson, the questions were not inappropriate as they were aimed at the credibility of the witness. If you going to engage in polemics then you have to expect some blowback. Polemicists should not expect softball questions in such a forum.

And considering his depiction of the four Conservative members of the committee as communists, it is clear communism is a strain that runs through Mr. Nikiforuk's thinking.

One of the things that came out of Nikiforuk's testimony that did not get challenged, surprisingly, is that he sucks and blows at the same time. On the one hand he describes the environmental degradation at each stage of the oil sand refining process, including the bitumen stage, as if this is something we need to stop doing, then he goes on to complain that we just sell the bitumen to the U.S. where the value-added refining takes place and that this costs us jobs and we should be doing the refining here.

You can go to this website to read the transcript in full.


Anonymous said...

Your commentary is misleading. Discuss the issue instead of attempting to undermine the credibility of the participants, or excerpts taken out of context.

The facts are that tailings ponds have been leaching for decades,flare stack emissions run into the river resulting in high levels of numerous toxins, and cancer rates are more than 30% higher in that community than anywhere else in the country.

O'Connor is not the first to speak out on the issue of illness, but he was the first to be accused of causing "undue alarm" in Fort Chipewyan and causing "mistrust of government" - maybe this is what he was talking about?

Aside from the fact that industry is killing people, The Athabasca delta is one of the largest in the world, a RAMSAR protected area and an integral area for migratory birds. That alone should cause a moratorium on further development...which is what O'Connor and the community are asking for.

What are you trying to prove or suggest with this article? That his concerns should be ignored and development should continue as if nothing is wrong?

Please don't dillute the issues, this are people's lives and traditions, and the future of the country we're talking about, not whether or not Nikiforuk "sucks and blows"

Navigator said...


It is Nikiforuk who has attempted to undermine the credibility of the members of the panel, rather than dealing with the issues, and, far from "taking excerpts out of context", I took the trouble to read the entire transcript, something I am betting you haven't done. My issue was not about pollution, it was about whether Mr. Nikiforuk was dealt with fairly and properly by the committee or whether his accusations had merit. I found after a reading of the proceedings that he grossly misrepresented the actions of the committee and engaged in unwarranted name calling.