Case Study: Alberta’s Oil Sands and the Rights of First Nations Peoples to Environmental Health

Source: Evergreen College - Enduring Legacies Native Cases

Initial Publication Date: April 29, 2016


This case examines health and environmental issues of Alberta's Cree First Nations and the rights of the Province of Alberta and lease-holders to develop the oil sands to extract petroleum. Although there are many environmental issues associated with the process of extracting the bitumen from the oil tar sands such as climate change, destruction of the boreal forest, and contamination of wetlands and muskegs, this case focuses on the tailings ponds and the environmental health issues that they are causing.

This case is appropriate for students at any level in college classes or advanced students in high school classes. Especially appropriate for classes in general science, chemistry, environmental science, hydrology, environmental health, and American Indian Studies.

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Context for Use

See Teaching Notes.

Description and Teaching Materials

Image: Syncrude Tailings Ponds adjacent to the Athabasca River Source: Calgary Herald, December 14, 2010

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Teaching Notes and Tips

Learning Objectives:

  1. Discuss the history and future of oil tar sands and development in Alberta.
  2. Analyze why oil extraction from the tar sands will decrease North America's dependence on foreign oil. Describe the process for oil extraction from tar sands and the need for the tailings ponds.
  3. Discuss the effects of oil tar sands development on air and water quality.
  4. Describe the effects of chemicals used in extracting oil from tar sands on the environment.
  5. Discuss the effects of the tar sands oil extraction process on human health.
  6. Discuss how First Nations Treaties are being compromised by oil tar sands development.
  7. Compare and contrast the positions of First Nations, ecologists, lease owners, and the Government of Alberta.


Depending on how the case is used, it can be taught in a class of 10 to 25 students. In classes with more than 15 to 20 students, the class should be divided into several small groups of 6-8 students. This promotes discussion by all the students in each small group. While the case could be read in class with no prior work or follow-up, it could also be done by having the students read the case in advance. A three-hour block of time would be ideal for an in-class implementation.

After the students read the case, the discussion of the case can either move directly into the small group discussion or the instructor might give time for further research and have the students take part in a mock presentation to the Prime Minister.

Students can be broken up into four small groups and each group takes the part of a group of stakeholders.

  1. First Nations
  2. Government of Alberta
  3. Oil companies
  4. Ecologists and scientists

If the case is taught as a mock presentation to Parliament and the Prime Minister, the case could be taught over two days which would give time for students to do further research on their positions. Further research should include an investigation of Canada's government; First Nations Treaties 6 & 8, effects of the Tar Sands tailing ponds, and the issue of energy use and dependence on foreign oil.

Another scenario is to break up the groups into engineers and have each group research how they can engineer a system for safe holdings ponds.

Questions for Additional Research:

  1. What is a holding pond and what kind of danger does it hold for the environment? What are the effects of these tailing ponds on human health?
  2. Green economists also look at the costs of damage to human health, loss of clean water etc. as real costs. What do you think of that argument? Could the tar sands mining actually end up costing more than it can make in profit?
  3. Why does the National Congress of American Indians oppose the Keystone XL Pipeline? Discuss this in terms of the issues raised in this case about Alberta's oil sands.
  4. Does Treaty 8 protect the interests of the First Nations? What further actions can First Nations take to protect their environment and their health?
  5. What was the government's response the concerns of the first Nations? Is it doing enough to address their issues? What would be the response of the First Nations leaders?
  6. Compare the need for good paying jobs for non-Natives and the need for First Nations to hold on to their subsistence way of life.
  7. Have students create a power point or poster indicating their positions.

References and Resources


Alberta Energy (2008), Launching Alberta's energy future: Provincial energy strategy, Alberta Energy, December, 2008, Retrieved 8.5.11 from:

CBC Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Edmonton feature. (2009) Retrieved 9.23.11 from:

Chevron Oil. (date N/A) retrieved 7.17.2011 from: (ttp://

CRBSCF (Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Forum). (1999)

Supplemental Report on the 1999 review, Water quality standards for salinity, Colorado River System. Bountiful, Utah: CRBSCF

Energy Resource Conservation Board (2009) Directive 074. Calgary, Alberta. Dan McFaddedn, Chairman.

Energy Tomorrow American Petroleum Institute. Retrieved 9.24.11 from:

H2Oil About the oil sands. Retrieved 100.18. 2011 from

Ipsos (Market Research) (2010) Retrieved 9.23.11 from:

Jowit, J. (2009), Indigenous people in legal challenge against oil firms over tar sand project, Guardian, February 26, 2009, Retrieved 8.5.11 from:

Kunzig, R. (2009), The Canadian oil boom scraping bottom, National Geographic, v.215: (March, 2009) , pp. 38-59.

Marsden. W. (2008). Stupid to the last drop: How Alberta is bringing environmental armageddon to Canada (and doesn't seem to care). Toronto: Random House.

Mech, M. (2011). A Comprehensive guide to the Alberta oil sands:

Understanding the environmental and human impacts, export

implications, and political, economic, and industry influences. Ottawa: Green Party of Canada. Retrieved 9.24.11 from

Mikisew Cree and Athabascan Chipewyan Cree First Nation Cree press release. Proposed oil sands water withdrawal framework breaches First Nations rights and interests, July 22, 2010.

Nikiforuk, A. (2008). Tar sands: Dirty oil and the future of a continent. Vancouver, BC: Greystone Books.

Solomon, G. (2010). The other oil disaster: Cancer and cancer tar sands, Natural Resources Defense Council Staff Blog (May 3) Retreived 9.23.11 from:

Tenenbaum,D.J., (2009) Oil sands development: A health risk worth taking? Environmental Health Perspectives. V, 117:4 (April) 150-156. Encyclopedia of Earth. Retrieved 10 18 11 from:

Thompson, M. Oil companies unveil $90-million partnership on tailings ponds research. Edmonton Sun.12, 13, 2010

Timoney, K. & Lee, P.(2009). Does the Alberta tar sands industry pollute? The scientific evidence. The Open Conservation Biology Journal, v. 3, pp. 65-8. Retrieved 10.18.11 from:

Toronto Sun (2010) Oil giants join forces to tackle tailing ponds. (Dec. 13. Retrieved 10 18 11 from:

Vancouver Province ( 2008). First Nation sues Alberta over oil sands. (June 5) Retrieved 7.21.2011 from:

Vidal, J (2008) Canadians ponder cost of rush for dirty oil. The Guardian (July 11) Retrieved 9.23.11 from:

Wingrove, J. (2011) Why oil sands monitoring is still a long way off. The Globe and Mail Sept 2. Retrieved 10 18 11 from:


(2013). Case Study: Alberta's Oil Sands and the Rights of First Nations Peoples to Environmental Health.