Indigenous Co-Governance in Protecting the Athabasca River from Tar Sands Effluent


At the end of August, the ELC appeared before a United Nations Reactive Monitoring Mission hearing on behalf of the Mikisew Cree First Nation to present findings from a recently released ELC report on how to regulate any proposed release of tar sands effluent that are currently stored in tailing ponds in and around their territory.

Now publicly available, the report Cleaning up Tar Sands Tailings Ponds: Selected Precedents for Optimal Regulation and Indigenous Co-Governance, documents what pollution standards should apply to the effluent treatment and disposal of oil sands affected waters. The report also highlights instances of co-governance and where Indigenous communities are setting rules and enforcing environmental jurisdiction.

Alberta tar sands development has produced 1.3 trillion litres of toxic liquid tailings currently stored in 220 square kilometres of effluent ponds. These vast tailings ponds are the by-product of over 50 years of bitumen extraction from oil sands ore. Once water used in the process of extraction is too polluted to be re-used, the polluted water has simply been stored untreated in the ponds. These effluent tailings contain a toxic mixture of bitumen, inorganic salts, cyanide, heavy metals, and toxic organic compounds. 

The UN Monitoring Mission – which was triggered by a 2014 Mikisew Cree submission to the World Heritage Committee that the ELC helped prepare – is considering sanctioning Canada for failing to protect the Wood Buffalo National Park World Heritage Site. They will now make a recommendation on whether UNESCO should declare Wood Buffalo a “World Heritage Site in Danger.”

In the ELC’s presentation, Senior Counsel Calvin Sandborn recommended that Canada implement the strictest possible protections for the Athabasca River and provide Nations with the opportunity to co-govern the setting and enforcement of pollution rules.

Edith Barabash

In writing this report, I was surprised by the lack of foresight from industry and government that has led to these toxic tailings ponds. It is difficult to fathom over 50 years of allowing untreated waters to pool up without regulatory standards to protect important cultural and ecological lands.

I hope that readers remember that traditional knowledge has been and should be at the forefront of solving many complex environmental problems, especially ones that deeply impact Indigenous communities. Including the Mikisew Cree First Nation in a governance framework is an important step towards protecting the Athabasca River.

Edith Barabash (ELC Articled Student Jan-May 2022)