O Canada! Neil Young, energy policy and native rights

Neil Young, performing in 2009. Photo: NRK P3, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Neil Young, performing in 2009. Photo: NRK P3, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

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.

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15 Comments on “O Canada! Neil Young, energy policy and native rights”

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  1. Two Cents says:

    let’s see if anyone listens to what he’s saying, anyone other than his fans at the show.
    jian is no slouch either. I enjoy his work as well

  2. The Original Larry says:

    Neil Young – a concerned Canadian who lives in California. Why is it always people who already have plenty of money who accuse others of trading their integrity for it? He ought to stick to what he does best.

  3. Two Cents says:

    who knows what he does best- at times his voice carries like someone is strangling a cat.
    on the other hand he’s sounding an alarm, who cares where the bullhorn was made.
    it is the height of ignorance to ignore warnings.
    anyone here ever been to the area he’s talking about?
    field trip anyone ?

  4. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    ROAD TRIP!!!!!!!! (But let’s wait til late spring)

  5. newt says:

    FWIW About a third of the speakers at the huge anti-fracking rally I attended in DC a year ago (and which got virtually no media coverage – I guess they forgot to torch the car) were either from Canadian “First Nations”, or US Native groups in sympathy, as I recall.

  6. myown says:

    Neil Young knows what he is talking about. He has been deeply involved, spending his personal money, on an effort to use biomass as a low-emission fuel with electric/hybrid autos. Check it out.




  7. Pete Klein says:

    I tend to like most of Neil’s songs but have always thought he can be a little heavy-handed in his preaching – mostly to the choir.
    If I’ve learned anything about Rock & Roll and all of it variations and transmutations since first becoming defined and popular in the 50’s is that the music always ends up being more important than the lyrics. Half the time, you can’t even understand what is being said (sung) anyways. There are exceptions but the exceptions do not change the fact that the lyrics mean nothing if the music doesn’t work.
    If you want proof, just listen to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. No words. Just some of the most emotional music you will ever hear.

  8. Ken Hall says:

    A road trip to the Athabasca oil sands near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada would likely enable one’s olfactory senses to absorb the putrid odoriferousness of the local air mass; however, one can get a pretty good visual sense of the endeavor from online web sites such as:



    A Google search for Alberta Oil Sands will return nearly 500,000 sites.

  9. Michael Greer says:

    All of Canada’s energy needs could be met without ever sinking a shovel into the ground. The sun, the wind, the tides, and the trees are super abundant, and endlessly renewable. The destruction of these lands will take 10,000 years to heal.

  10. Michael Greer says:

    Awesome links Ken. The folks that get all heated up over wind farms spoiling the view should take a look at the alternative.

  11. Two Cents says:

    2 tons of tar to 55 gallons of oil, and 275 of water used (and polluted) to boot! sounds like that new math…..greeeazy

  12. Mervel says:

    The only reason that oil field exists is it happens to be located far away from non-Native homes and cities.

    Neil Young is right that place looks horrible, its huge looks like a giant nuclear bomb went off.

    I don’t think that type of extraction should be allowed, period. I am not against oil or even fracking (with controls and regulations), but what they are doing up there is far worse than fracking.

  13. Two Cents says:

    you only need change a few letters in “FraCKING to accurately describe what the earth is getting out of this deal

  14. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I read an interesting piece once about the intersection of sociology and industrialization that (if I remember right) referenced the mines in Tahawaus. It talked about how modern industrialization changed society and resource management. In Tahawus the owners lived at the site of the operation and they owned thousands of acres of forest so that they could produce a continuous supply of charcoal on a 20 year rotation, and while there was resource extraction there was also continual regrowth. Once iron production started to be consolidated in places like Pittsburg the population became disconnected from resource extraction. Ore was shipped in from one location, coal or charcoal from somewhere else and the decimation that accompanied the extraction process became less visceral to most people.

    God bless Neil for trying to make it visceral for us once again.

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