When we get sick, when we experience symptoms that we’ve never seen before, we rely on doctors to tell us what’s wrong. We rely on their knowledge and training to diagnose our symptoms and tell us how to get better. 

When Peace River residents went to their doctor something else happened. Their doctors refused to do the tests needed to fully diagnose the symptoms they were experiencing, and in one case the doctor’s advice was to, “move.” His actual reported comment was even more troubling: “you are just a small, little bolt in this huge robot, and you don't matter. Move.”

The huge robot the doctor was referring to was the tar sands industry.

Peace River Tar Sands, Carmen Langer from Public Interest Alberta on Vimeo.

The symptoms the local residents were experiencing included debilitating headaches, nausea, fatigue, dizziness, and inflamed nasal and ear passages – all possibly a result of nearby tar sands operations.  The message the patients got, from those we trust most to take care of us, was just to be quiet and leave.

In Alberta, the message is that the tar sands industry is king, and you simply don’t do anything that may tarnish its crown.

Potentially, some physicians understood that message and either out of their own sense of loyalty or out of fear of retribution, both understandable in the current climate in Alberta, failed the residents in Peace River.

You can sympathisize with the sense of fear the doctors may have.

We just need to remember the story of Dr. John O’Connor.

Dr. O’Connor was and still is the medical doctor for the community of Fort Chipewyan. His biggest mistake, if you can call advocating for and trying to get answers for your patients a mistake, was to raise questions about the illnesses he was seeing all around him.

When Dr. O’Connor raised the possibility that Fort Chipewyan was experiencing an unusual number of rare cancers, (something that the cancer board later confirmed), he was attacked by government, industry and even the medical association he belonged to claiming he was ‘causing undue alarm.’

Dr. O’Connor was later cleared of any wrongdoing. The cancer board confirmed his findings of increased cancers in the community and called for more study, and Dr. O’Conner continues to practice medicine and advocate for the community of Fort Chipewyan today. Though you may not know all that after the way the government and industries attack dogs went after him.

Perhaps because of what happened to Dr. O’Connor, or perhaps because of the culture the government has created that says ‘tar sands is king’ and where problems are denied or covered up, doctors are unable, unwilling, or just afraid to fulfill their sworn oath and duty to put patients first.

What happened to the families in Peace River should worry us all. These were men, women and children who sought answers and were didn't get them.

How do these residents get answers? How many other doctors, scientists, engineers and other workers feel the same silencing chill?

Today, 26 groups sent an open letter to the Alberta Medical Association (AMA) to try to get some answers.  I suggest you do the same.


To the Alberta Medical Association:

We are writing to express our concern about a recent report commissioned by the Alberta Energy Regulator that suggests doctors in the Peace River region may be reluctant to treat or diagnose patients whose symptoms could be attributed to bitumen exposure potentially due to fears of political or industry retribution. 

Due to the seriousness of these allegations, we believe the AMA needs to look into this matter to see if there is anything the AMA can do to further support physicians so that they feel able to fully advocate on behalf of their patients.

In keeping with your mission of “advocating for Patients First,” we urge the AMA to look into this matter, to see if similar concerns occur in other Alberta’s oil sands regions, and to identify what the AMA can do to better support physicians in the area. Such an examination could help restore public confidence and provide direction as to what actions may be taken so that physicians feel free to advocate for the health and security of their patients.

The public needs to have full confidence in the medical system and in the front line workers who provide their care.

Thank you for looking into this matter and we look forward to your response,


  1. Alberta Surface Rights Group
  2. BriarPatch
  3. Butte Action Committee.
  4. Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment
  5. Canadian Health Coalition
  6. Change Alberta
  7. Central Athabasca Stewardship Society
  8. Council of Canadians
  9. Ernst Environmental Services
  10. Forest Ethics
  11. Friends of Lily Lake
  12. Friends of Medicare
  13. Global Exchange
  14. Greenpeace Canada
  15. Greenspiration
  16. Indigenous Tar Sands Campaign
  17. Keepers of the Athabasca
  18. Mother Earth Action Co-operative Ltd.
  19. National Farmers Union
  20. Public Interest Alberta
  21. Prairie Acid Rain Coalition
  22. Sierra Club of Canada
  23. Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition
  24. Springvale Surface Rights Association
  25. Three Creeks Residents Group
  26. United Landowners of Alberta