One of Canada’s most famous and respected musical talents, Neil Young, has come out swinging against Alberta’s oil sand industry. He’s not mincing words, even if the Hiroshima part of his comments leans into hyperbole:
“The fact is, Fort McMurray looks like Hiroshima. Fort McMurray is a wasteland. The Indians up there and the native peoples are dying. The fuels all over – the fumes everywhere – you can smell it when you get to town. The closest place to Fort McMurray that is doing the tar sands work is 25 or 30 miles out of town and you can taste it when you get to Fort McMurray. People are sick. People are dying of cancer because of this. All the First Nations people up there are threatened by this.”
Last night, NCPR listeners might have heard Young on this edition of Q, where he tells host Jian Ghomeshi that Canada is trading integrity for money.
Young is conducting a small, four city musical campaign that began Sunday at Toronto’s Massey Hall:
…the proceeds of which were to be directed to the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Legal Fund. The tour, which also features Canuck jazz chanteuse Diana Krall, was set to roll through Winnipeg and Regina before wrapping in Calgary on Jan. 19.
Young’s very public position has been generating about the same kind of coverage you’d expect if Bruce Springsteen took aim at a sitting President with Texas oil ties in politically-themed concerts. Environmentalists are thrilled. Offended parties are taking exception to a mere singer/songwriter trying to define and shape a national issue. Others take a mixed view, as in this opinion column by Graham Thomson for the the Edmonton Journal (Edmonton Alberta is the closest big city to Fort McMurray):
Young’s “Honor the Treaties” concert tour of four Canadian cities uses the Americanized spelling of “honour” so as not to confuse our neighbours down south who are the real targets of the anti-oilsands movement. The tour’s title, no matter how it’s spelled, makes it sound as if all First Nations are against the oilsands. They’re not.
Some First Nations people have learned to make the oilsands work for them through jobs and investments. The oilsands company Syncrude calls itself the largest employer of aboriginal people in Canada and has conducted $1.7 billion worth of business deals with aboriginal companies since 1992.
Thomson goes on to add this:
For those upset with Neil Young’s simplistic and cantankerous attack on the oilsands, the real culprit here is a provincial government that for too long ignored or ridiculed the voices of opponents.
It’s not surprising that in an attempt to be heard, those voices have become a little shrill.
Under Canada’s parliamentary system, it’s pretty hard to stymie a majority government. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is from Alberta and his government is consistently “pro” resource extraction and development, including throwing support behind new pipelines to move that energy to market.
So what are those who oppose oil sands and more pipelines able to do? They can try to sway public opinion (á la Neil Young), even though elections are theoretically not scheduled until October of 2015. Or they can hope for relief from the courts.
Many – though not all – of Canada’s indigenous First Nations oppose proposals like the Northern Gateway Pipeline, or activities like fracking. While native land claims and rights are a complex and rocky battle ground all on their own, those are key parts of this energy fight too. David Sommerstein (correctly, in my view) called Canada’s “Idle No More” movement one of the most important stories in Canada for 2013. One of the hot spots for that movement was a small community in New Brunswick that’s trying to say no to fracking.
Heather Smith did an excellent write up on that for Grist: “Elsipogtog epic: How a tribe’s fight against an energy company caught fire“:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a grassroots movement rarely catches the attention of the media until a car is on fire.
There were several cars on fire on Oct. 17, 2013, and for a few days the world was interested in what was happening in a remote part of New Brunswick. Media attention moved on, as it does, but the story it left behind is worth revisiting.
Partly, it’s just a great tale — of how a small First Nations tribe allied with locals and faraway sympathizers to throw a major wrench into a big energy company’s plans to explore for natural gas. Beyond that, it’s also representative of a host of new regional battles over pipelines, rail networks, and refineries across the U.S. and Canada. They’re being fought by small bands of people who, in may cases, do not even consider themselves environmentalists. Together, they have large implications for global energy markets and climate change.
She’s right about journalists fluttering like moths toward burning cars – that was when I blogged about the protest. (Another universally acknowledged truth is quiet standoffs just don’t attract as much attention.) The larger story of what some First Nations people feel and want is far more nuanced and Smith’s article is well worth reading in full.
Young’s tour winds up in less than a week, but this contentious issue is not going away anytime soon.