Tar Sands and Human Rights

Rapid tar sands development has resulted in devastating social impacts. In northern Alberta, local Indigenous communities are forced to endure highly degraded air and water quality. Eighty per cent of the traditional territory of the Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations has been rendered inaccessible for most of the year by tar sands development, and the Beaver Lake Cree have documented 20,000 treaty rights violations.

The tar-sands development around Fort McMurray and Fort McKay is located upstream along the Athabasca River basin. Current tar-sands development has completely altered the Athabasca delta and watershed landscape. This has caused de-forestation of the boreal forests, open-pit mining, de-watering of water systems and watersheds, toxic contamination, disruption of habitat and biodiversity, and disruption of the indigenous Dene, Cree and Métis trap-line cultures.

The expansion of tar sands refineries has also increased toxic pollution in numerous communities in Canada and the U.S., and pipeline companies have used eminent domain to confiscate private property from ranchers and landowners as they ram new pipelines through. The courts have refused to hear cases brought against the Alberta and Canadian governments to have their rights respected.

A recent health study commissioned by the Nunee Health Authority of Fort Chipewyan provides evidence that the governments of Alberta and Canada have been ignoring the evidence of toxic contamination on downstream indigenous communities. The people most at risk of health effects are those who eat food from the land and water. The Dene, Cree and Métis communities continue to subsist on a diet of fish and wild game. The remote Fort Chipewyan community, for example, has an eighty-per-cent subsistence diet. According to many Fort Chipewyan residents, the tar-sands mining is the principle cause of both the toxins in the water and the recent dramatic increases in the number of cancers and other diseases.


A higher than normal incidence of rare and deadly cancers has been documented in First Nations communities downstream of the oil sands by doctors, the Alberta Health Department and First Nations since 2007.

In 2008, Alberta Health confirmed a 30 per cent rise of cancer rates between 1995 – 2006 in Fort Chipewyan, a community 200 kilometres downstream from Fort MacMurray: Alberta Cancer Board (2009). Cancer Incidence in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta 1995-2006. Government of Alberta. After years of denial, the government of Alberta finally announced in 2013 that an independent study would be conducted in the future. The terms of reference were so inadequate that some First Nations have refused to participate.

First Nations have been refused standing to participate in government review panel hearings into tar sands expansion.

The oil sands underlie approximately 140,000 square kilometres of Alberta – an area about the size of Florida. Oil sands leases cover about 20% of the province’s land area.The total area of Alberta is 661,190 square kilometres. Source: Government of Alberta, “About Alberta: Climate and Geography” (accessed June 5, 2009).

The Human Right to Water and Sanitation

In July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution recognizing the human right to water and sanitation. The UN Human Rights Council has also passed resolutions outlining governments’ obligations concerning the right to water and sanitation. This right is now enshrined in international law and all countries must ensure its implementation.

In June 2012, former federal Environment Minister Peter Kent finally conceded that the human right to water not only exists, but that it is integral to the right to an adequate standard of living under the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Every government must now come up with a plan of action based on the “obligation to protect, respect, and fulfill” this right.

Maude Barlow, National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, points out that the obligation to protect means that a government is obliged to prevent third parties from interfering with the enjoyment of the human right. This would mean, for instance, protecting local communities from pollution and inequitable extraction of water by corporations or governments. Potential pipeline spills threaten the human right to safe drinking water.

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