Neil Young – Talkin’ to the Free World

Neil Young ended his Honour The Treaties tour in Calgary Alberta this week and always a man to speak his mind, he is lending his celebrity (and mind) to The Athabaska Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN).

Update (01/29): Watch a live performance of “Mother Earth” from the Calgary performance here.

The intent of the tour is to raise cash for the AFCN’s legal defence against Prime minister Harper’s federal conservative government. At issue is the federal government’s violation of First nation’s constitutional rights to preserve and protect their traditional lands from any kind of development without meaningful consultation. The federal government have approved Shell Oil Canada’s mine expansion projects without consideration of Treaty 8 which is specific to the area. Mr. Young reports that “thanks to Canadian’s awesome response” in excess of $75,000 have been raised for the legal defense fund, an amount he believes will do the job.

The Alberta tar sands, are perhaps the most hotly contested and lucrative natural resource on the planet. Covering about 140,000 square kilometres, generating thousands of jobs and billions of dollars, the oil patch has been great for the economy. On the opposite side of those coins, the environmental impact of the tar sands development has so far had a severe effect on Alberta’s Athabaska region.

Depending on whose point of view you read, it is possible to swing from confidence in the environmental responsibility and reclamation promises of the oil companies and government ministries, to abject fear when listening to the ministrations of environmental scientists such as Dr. David Suzuki and fellow panel member David Schindler. Oil company and government representatives were invited to participate but did not attend.

[quote]If the government is lying to the First nations people and not honouring the treaties, could they be lying to you?[/quote]
Calgary was recently rated third best place in the world to live. It is an energetic, vibrant, clean and confident place. It is no secret that the oil business feeds much of this. It’s ironic that the press conference was held in The Jack Singer concert hall. Twenty three of it’s thirty four founders are oil companies. People here are passionate about the oil business. It is part of the fabric of Calgary’s economic climate and those who want to tamper with it are not looked upon too kindly. As Young and Suzuki point out however, this event is focused less on economics and more on ecological issues.

What is being asked for is not a stop to the oil business but a paradigm shift in how think about our future and how we look after the planet on which we live. The belief here is that if Treaty 8 is honoured, the environmental concerns could be controlled as the oil sands continue to expand. Left unchecked, the health of animals of the four and two legged variety are being and will continue to be severely threatened. In the irreparable sense, rare cancers have been reported in the surrounding settlements and disease in general has increased by 30 percent.

It’s easy to turn a blind eye to these concerns when financial gain is on the table and the problem is in someone else’s backyard. That someone else with the back yard in this case is The Athabaska Chipewyan First Nation. Chief Allan Adams of the ACFN invited members of the press to visit the area if they wanted the real story and to drink a glass of water from Lake Athabaska. He promised us we would not drink it.

In early 2013 The Alberta government announced world class technology and transparency in regard to monitoring the future growth and reclamation aspects of the tar sands but where big money is concerned it’s easy to be skeptical. As in any democracy however, it is up to the people to hold their governments accountable. This is the other prong of Young’s approach, to keep us aware and talking about our future as well as our leader‘s roles in it.

Raising Awareness
Raising Awareness
Mr. Young has been criticized in the media for being hypocritical and he admits that he has been, but concedes: “So are we all. The point is I have learned and am doing something with that knowledge. I am looking forward and trying to protect the earth for my grandchildren. If the hole in Alberta’s boreal forest continues to grow and the CO2 emissions continue to rise, what is happening now to the First Nations people will inevitably happen to all of us.” Young posed the question: “If the government is lying to the First nations people and not honouring the treaties, could they be lying to you?“

It’s easy for anyone to get the wrong impression of actual facts through the media. Edited sound bites and quotes taken out of context are rampant. Press coverage in Calgary did nothing to alleviate that. Young was quick to thank (with thinly veiled sarcasm) the editor of the Calgary Herald for bringing it to his attention that the message of the tour is not being clearly heard, reporting for example that Young was using a private jet for this tour (he took a bus).

This was responded to by a confrontational Herald columnist who asked Young: “When was the last time you flew in a private jet?” and “How will you ever make up for the carbon footprint you have created in your life?” His response: “I doubt I can, but I might possibly make up for it if I can do enough now to change the way the world is going. This is what it will take for all of us. We didn’t know what a huge problem CO2 would be. Now we do.” As David Suzuki points out: ”It is impossible to live right now the way we need to live in the future because the infrastructure for it is not there. We need to slow it down and change direction in how we live on our planet”

The debate about who is more naive or hypocritical aside, Young’s real intention for the tour is to bring it to our attention that Treaty 8 must be honoured if oil sands expansion is to continue. To do this would do much to preserve the ecology of the Athabaska region. “There are many issues lined up like fence posts along the highway” he says, “but we cant address all of them. It’s valuable that we know what’s in that treaty. It was written by smart people and is there to protect all of us.”

Young is using his powers for good instead of evil. “I hope to reverse the damage I’ve done. My parents taught me two things: honour your word and clean up your mess” he says. That very much seems to be the path here. Apathy is not in Neil Young’s make up but integrity and accountability certainly are. That old hippy idealism may be more important than it ever was.

Hopefully he’s not naive in that.

– Photography: Charles Hope

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