Neil Young amps up national oil sands debate

Neil Young amps up national oil sands debate

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Neil Young amps up national oil sands debate
Neil Young at a benefit concert in Toronto on Sunday (Mark Blinch/AP)

When Neil Young first wandered into Canadian energy politics last year, comparing Fort McMurray to Hiroshima following a trip to the northern industry town in his biomass-powered car, it provoked a handful of rebuttals from conservative columnists. But the legendary Canadian-born rocker’s latest wading into that political and geological morass known alternately as the Alberta oil sands or Tar Sands has been a very different story.

Young’s Canadian concert tour, in support of an oil sands-related legal challenge by the Athabasca-Chipewyan First Nation, has somehow struck a nerve. The media has been rife with stories on Young’s provocative critique of Canadian energy policy and treatment of First Nations, eliciting a tidal wave of responses from everyday citizens, journalists, political pundits, industry advocates and top Harper Government officials.

A google news search of “Neil Young, oil sands” at the time of this writing yielded a staggering 34,000 news items from around Canada and the world.

If the comments posted on this site and others are any indication, Young has somehow fostered a frank debate about the kinds of economic choices we’re making for our future.

Round 1: Harper underestimates Young

The Harper Government underestimated Neil Young from the get-go, beginning with a juvenile rebuttal from a spokesperson for the PMO this past weekend: “Even the lifestyle of a rock star relies, to some degree, on the resources developed by thousands of hard-working Canadians every day.”

Apparently, to the Harper Government, two wrongs do make a right.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver – the Conservative pitbull on critiques of the government’s energy agenda – also chimed in with a rather lame response:

[quote]We don’t go ahead with any project unless it’s safe for Canadians and safe for the environment – it’s a a very rigorous, objective and independent review. We rely on that rather than an entertainer – no matter how talented – who compares Fort McMurray to Hiroshima, which is deeply insulting to the people of Fort McMurray and is both a travesty and a wild exaggeration.[/quote]

This from a government that has spent the past few years gutting environmental laws (most recently handing over fish protection along pipelines to our Calgary-based energy regulator) and “streamlining” and politicizing environmental assessments to facilitate its energy agenda.

Young fires back

Mr. Young – flanked on the four-city tour by First Nations leaders, David Suzuki, and climatologist-cum-BC Green Party MLA Andrew Weaver – wasted no time firing back at Harper and co. through a statement issued yesterday:

[quote]Our issue is not whether the natural resource sector is a fundamental part of the country, our issue is with the government breaking treaties with the First Nation and plundering the natural resources the First Nation has rights to under the treaties…There are better jobs to be developing, with clean energy source industries to help make the world a safer place for our grandchildren.[/quote]

Despite the polarizing nature of his earlier comments about the oil sands as Hiroshima, in his statement yesterday, he expressed compassion for everyday Canadians facing tough choices in today’s economy. “As to the thousands of hard working Canadians, we have respect for all working people,” Young emphasized. “The quandary we face is the job they are working on. They are digging a hole that our grandchildren will have great trouble digging their way out of.”

Canadians chime in

The complex and essential conversation which Young has stoked shows up in the comments section of the many well-read stories appearing on the subject. The sheer volume of responses provides a telling glimpse at the power of Young’s voice. Sure, there are plenty of the simplistic barbs that typically pepper Canadian energy stories – on both sides of the conversation. But there is also much heartfelt grappling with what has become perhaps the defining Canadian question: What role should fossil fuel development play in our economic future?

One oil sands worker simultaneously defends Fort Mac and illustrates the plight many Canadian workers face as a result of the country’s economic policies: “There is no other place in Canada that you will be able to make the type of money to provide for your family, even without any education.”

Another counters:

[quote]Our choices are more like oil vs. electric cars/solar power/biofuels/mass transit expansion/conservation investment/etc. There are so many different paths we could be walking…It’s short-sighted, destructive and counterproductive to progress where we need it.[/quote]

Is it because it’s Neil Young that this debate has suddenly blown up – or because it’s a conversation with which Canadians are about ready to engage? Perhaps it’s a bit of both. While it remains to be seen the longterm legacy Mr. Young’s tour will leave on the public discourse, for the time being, at least, it’s amping up an urgent national discussion.

This site has also seen a fair share of “Neil Young for PM!” comments. That maybe a bit of a stretch –  but, hey, if the whole music thing doesn’t work out, Mr. Harper may want to watch his back.

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About Damien Gillis

Damien Gillis is a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker with a focus on environmental and social justice issues - especially relating to water, energy, and saving Canada's wild salmon - working with many environmental organizations in BC and around the world. He is the co-founder, along with Rafe Mair, of The Common Sense Canadian, and a board member of both the BC Environmental Network and the Haig-Brown Institute.

24 thoughts on “Neil Young amps up national oil sands debate

  1. Collyer obviously has a lack of understanding about which way the wind is blowing. And it’s not up our skirts.

  2. Neil Young is basically stating that the Feds are out of control. Hard to argue that point when pee wee harper grants more rights to the Chinese than he does to First Nations who have Constitutional Rights guaranteed under our Constitution.

  3. Thank you for your article, Damien Gills – You are an inspiration. Neil Young is striking the heart of the people and the need for momentum is growing. An excellent catalyst, our Neil. I am hearing more passion, on all fronts, from all kinds of people. It is exactly what needs to happen to affect real change. We are the collective heart of this nation and when the time is right we will protect her 🙂

  4. Several municipalities in the U.S. lease the land the city sits on from the Tribes who own the land. Where is that model in Canada? Nowhere. The Shaunessy golf course and UBC endowment lands are a far cry from what is/has been occurring in the U.S. See: Riverton, Wyoming, for example.
    Oliver doesn’t address the reason for Young’s tour and only mentions FN after more than two minutes of babbling.
    Let me be as clear as possible. FN own every piece of land in the country known as Canada and the money made from natural resources since colonial entities started making it here should have been portioned after FN, who own the land, got their share.
    What has been funnelled through INAC/AANDC is a pittance considering where the wealth comes from.

    1. Why is it the “FN own every piece of land in the country known as Canada…?”

      I support many of the FN interests but I’m confused by your statement of ownership, why is that… you sound no different than the bunch you condemn.

      1. I appreciate what Mr. Young is bringing attention to, but it falls way short of reality, which the government of Canada and most of its citizens are afraid to recognize: Every stereotype visited on FN people in this part of the world was wrought by colonial interference. There would be no pockets of third world conditions (reserves that were situated in the worst possible locations) if settlers respected the people and different civilizations that were already and continue to be, here. There are several FN communities who have completely adopted a capitalist model of governance and they are no different, in that they’re only concerned with making money with no regard for the ecosystem or societal progress, than most governing bodies in Canada.
        There are no fewer than 35 separate FN language groups in B.C. … how many of them would be doing well if they were operating on 100 year leases money from the municipalities situated on their traditional territory? The environmental stewardship attitude of all indigenous people in B.C. would have prevented much of the destruction of the forests we can view on Google Earth today. It is somewhat ironic that the roads created for the forest industry are lubricating the pipe dreams of today.
        Please don’t jump to conclusions about who I am or what ideas I may have. I hope that clears up any confusion you may have regarding my previous comment.

        1. With respect, I did not see an answer to the previous request for you to explain or justify your statement of “FN own every piece of land in the country known as Canada”.

          I personally read your statement to meant the First Nation own every single square foot of land in Canada today and that no one else and any legal right to it.

          Is this what you mean?

          I pretty much agree with everything else you are saying but was confused by this part.

          Thanx in advance for your response.

          1. Everything in life is based on agreement. Canada posits that it is a legal colonial occupier, which is far from factual. I don’t really have the time or inclination to go through every numbered treaty signed between Canada and Eastern Canadian FN, however, I would be surprised to see a majority of any of the clauses upheld by either party in said agreements. Therefore, the contracts are null. What does that leave? B.C. in particular, aside from the northeast, where it is void of treaties the Crown asserts that it is operating under legal colonial occupation. More knowledgeable people than I can move to prove o disprove this notion. I merely present the idea that every part of Canada, as it has existed, is based on failed contracts, meaning there is no such thing as Crown land.
            This means that corporations have been paying the wrong landlord, for lack of a better term and every dollar made through resource extraction occurred on FN territory.
            I know, it blows my mind too.
            So, while I thank Mr. Young for his efforts, asking a country that most likely is aware their ‘occupation’ is a lie to honour its agreements with FN is like pounding snot in a rat hole.

  5. Yes I think NEIL would make an great improvement to our politics . He talks the truth ,which is more than our PM does . I vote for Neil ,cya Stevie

  6. Thanks again for the balance you write in your articles. Having both an Economics and Environmental Studies degrees we can not afford to run the world on the extremes.I firmly believe this century is about water. If you add all the costs of extracting oil and gas it reminds me of getting milk out of cows. If you add all the costs up it does not make economic sense. But the future damage and costs of clean up never are factored in. Why can’t we follow the lead of Germany and invest (even subsidize) cleaner sources of energy. Because we do subsidize the Oil and GAs industry. If we are going to build pipelines it should be to transport water from wetter climates to drier farmland. Thank you again for writing thought provoking and balanced articles.It is interesting in school we were taught to balance our writing by looking at all sides and yet almost mainstream press writes with that integrity. Of course they also taught us science which I guess we won’t need with this current government.

    1. The original NAFTA agreement, signed by Mulroney I believe, was cleverly disguised to appear like something else but was really about water rights.

      The next century will not be about energy. I realized this in the early 90’s. It will be about uncontaminated water and food.

  7. Niel has got it right, the Conservatives are after money and promise jobs – there is no accounting for the damage done. Big Oil is running the show, and running the environment into the ground behind them, then they will leave. They won’t stop until we make them.
    I want my Canada back.

  8. Thanks to “Common Sense Canadian” and specifically Damien Gillis for the effort and time given on this site to bring us this valuable documentation!
    I am a 62 year young canadian born man who has had the honor to have Neil Young be a part of that life for now more than forty years. Neil has shown nothing but integrity and compassion for human beings his whole career. he could be on a yacht parked on the riviera today but he is here giving of his time fighting on our behalf against a formidable foe, the oil and gas industry and the harper government. Trying to protect aboriginal rights and the rights of all Canadians.
    I ask all Canadians to respect him and at least listen to what the man has to say. He and we deserve that!

  9. This is a conversation we all need to have with each other. If it takes Neil Young to get the party started then thank you Neil from the bottom of my heart!!!
    We have to look past the seduction wages of this generation and look to the future of what our children will have to deal with. Silencing of the labs, closing of research libraries, giving scientists 5 min to take what they want from their office and being dismissed, gutting of environmental laws, being managed by oil companies interests. It has a chilling feel of the Nazi era with oil being our “blue eyed and blonde German/” I hope that Neil can get people to find their singing voice and say “I want my Canada back!”

    1. There are a lot of things wrong now days with our government like the life style they want. I think if more people don’t stand up to the government of Canada now we all will be starving and cold we as a people have forgotten that we are the people and we are the one who put these people in government. if we all made a choice at once like other country are doing we can stop what is happening we have to take our country back….ONE FOR ALL AND ALL FOR ONE…….

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