This article scrutinizes the problems facing Canadian oil production, examines issues related to these problems and exposes our need to have federal leadership that, as renowned author Margaret Atwood states, is not simply a “frantic one-trick pony” with little or no concern for the environment.

Getting Started

Appropriate Subject Area(s):

Environmental studies, world issues

Key Questions to Explore:

  • Why are we in this mess?
  • How was it caused?
  • What should we do?

New Terminology:


Materials Needed:

Potentially, if the students are uncertain, Internet access to research current positions of the major political parties relative to the Alberta tar sands and pipeline proposals.

Study and Discussion Activity

Introduction to lesson and task:

It is obvious to those who have been watching that there is a high correlation between the price of crude oil and the value of the Canadian dollar. We have seen a decline of about 25% in the value of the dollar as oil prices have tumbled from a high of over $100 a barrel to their current value of about $45. This decline in the value of the dollar is a direct result of the Harper Conservative government tying the Canadian economy so strongly to oil production. This has had a considerable impact on Canada, both nationally and internationally. The focus of Canadian oil production has been the tar sands and the attendant pipeline issues. Oil sands crude is viewed by almost all except the current government as “dirty oil” because, as studies claim, it generates 15 to 20 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than regular oil when all emissions from extracting it, refining it and burning it are taken into consideration. The European Union discussed applying this label to Canadian oil sands crude for a considerable period and, only after hard political manoeuvring did it, to the great surprise of many, finally decide in 2014 not to attach the label. This high profile marketing of oil sands crude, coupled with the government’s unwillingness to seriously initiate climate change strategies and consider alternative renewable energy sources, has brought international condemnation and adversely affected our international reputation.

Nationally, Canada has seen dramatic changes too. In efforts to make it easier for oil sands production and pipeline projects to go forward, environmental protection legislation has been weakened. The Species at Risk Act, which came into effect in 2004, receives less than enthusiastic support. The Conservative government’s 2012 omnibus budget bill made massive changes to legislation including the Environmental Assessment Act, The Fisheries Act and the Navigable Waters Protection Act. The end result is that any impact of these projects on the wildlife and their habitat will be harder to prevent.

Where does that leave us? Are we forever tied to the value of crude and the continuation of the oil sands damage? Margaret Atwood offers ideas and suggestions in her article and this lesson will use the article to have the students reflect on this issue and decide the degree to which they believe this needs to be addressed.

Action (lesson plan and task):

  • Begin the lesson by asking the students if they are aware of what is happening to the value of the Canadian dollar.
  • Once it has been established that it has lost about 25% of its value in the last year, ask the students to offer suggestions as to why this is happening.
  • Make certain that the students understand that a major driver in this devaluation is the direct relationship between the value of the Canadian dollar and the price of crude oil.
  • Ask the students if they believe this emphasis is a good thing and get the reasons for their answers.
  • At this point indicate to them that the famous Canadian author Margaret Atwood has offered some ideas and opinions and give them a copy of the article to read.
  • Once they have read the article ask the students to indicate whether or not they support her position.
  • If there is both support and non-support put the students into like groups.
  • If there is consensus in the class randomly divide the class into groups.
  • Once in their groups assign them the following tasks:
    1. What steps do you think should be taken regarding the Canadian economy’s heavy reliance on the production of crude oil?
    2.  Should Canada start to shift its emphasis to renewable energy sources and the attendant industries? Why or why not?
    3. If the answer to question 2 is yes, then what should be done? If the answer to question 2 is no, then how do we address the fact that oil sands crude is essentially “dirty oil” and what can be done about it?
    4. Where do you think Canada’s future lies – continued reliance on fossil fuels or the development and use of alternative renewable resources?
    5. Are environmental issues and the impacts of climate change important to you?
    6. Does it concern you that various pieces of environmental legislation have been weakened, making it easier for oil sands expansion and pipeline construction to happen? Why or why not?

Consolidation of Learning:

  • Have each group report its findings and answer any questions from the class.
Success and Additional Learning

Success Criteria:

The students will:

  • demonstrate an understanding of the relationship between the Canadian dollar and the price of crude oil.
  • explain the reasons for this correlation.
  • offer opinions as to whether or not this is a good situation.
  • offer ideas about the future directions Canada should take.

Confirming Activity:

  • As a concluding activity have the students identify the positions of the major political parties relative to the tar sands and pipelines. Once this has been done, ask them, based solely on these positions, what party they would vote for in the coming federal election.