A matter of integrity: Neil Young on the tar sands and First Nations rights

TORONTO – Rock legend Neil Young made a splash at a press conference in Toronto on Sunday. Joined by scientist David Suzuki, Athabasca Chipewyan Chief Allan Adam, and band communication representative Eriel Deranger, Young spoke out about his fundraising concert tour and raised questions about the environmental and health implications of the Tar Sands in Northern Alberta.

Young criticized the conservative government’s decisions, despite mounting scientific data pointing straight at a number of environmental disasters looming in Canada’s future. “It’s a huge problem right at the top of the chain in Ottawa. We have a huge problem with science and our understanding of it. Our future depends on science. Science is the roadmap. Science cannot be ignored as inconvenient and that is what today’s leaders are doing. That’s why I’m here.” said Young.


Young was referring to the conservative government’s rocky relationship with the scientific, environmental and First Nations communities. Harper’s Conservative Party have a shameful track record of gouging the Navigable Waters Protection Act, destroying environmental research library archives and rewriting the Fisheries Act in order to pave the way for increased oil production in Canada.

Minister of the Environment Leona Aglukkaq, Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver, and Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Bernard Valcourt were also invited to the press conference to “share their side of the story” but they did not attend. Instead, the three empty seats with their names on it, spoke volumes in their absence.

Young’s Honour the Treaties tour is raising support and funds for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation of the Denesuline people; part of Treaty 8 territory in Northern Alberta. This band of approximately 1200 people is just 200km downstream from oil sand development, and on the receiving end of it’s by-products.

“The name Canada is based on a First Nations word, Ottawa is based on a First Nations word,” said Young. “…Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Quebec these are all First Nations words. That is where Canada came from. We are here, we made a deal with these people, we are breaking our promise, we are killing these people. The blood of these people will be on modern Canada’s hands and it will be not only the result of a slow thing but of a fast and horrific thing if this continues. There are many ways this could happen and believe me [First Nations] are not going to sit back and let modern Canada roll over them. They’re not saying it but they are feeling it. You can’t just do this. Canada can’t just walk over everyone.”

Young has teamed up with Canadian Jazz artist Diana Krall to put on a series of four concerts across the country raising money for the ACFN Legal Defence Fund. Recently the band fought Shell Canada and the federal government over the expansion of the Jackpine mine. The expansion was approved by Ottawa last month, and ACFN says they were not properly consulted. The band is now engaged in a “multi pronged legal approach” asserting the Treaty right to protect the territory against irreversible environmental degradation and human rights.

For thousands of years, Denesuline people have relied on the Athabasca Lake and Athabasca River to survive, many still living off the land entirely. This subsistence lifestyle is at risk following contamination of the territory from tar sands by-products. A recent oil spill last October contaminated one of the river’s tributaries with arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead and manganese, prompting the province to issue multiple warnings to avoid using the water entirely.

ACFN Chief Allan Adam also stated the reserve community of Fort Chipewyan has documented elevated cases of rare cancers, skin rashes and lupus in women. Many believe these health issues are stemming from the contaminants they are exposed to because Fort Chipewyan is 200km downstream of the tar sands development.

As part of the concert event selections from the Greenpeace documentary “Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands” were shown, highlighting some of the health issues stemming from the oil sands (the film can be viewed at http://bit.ly/Kfayas). A video on the film’s website shows Dr. John O’Connor; a physician who treated patients in ‘Fort Chip’. He noted the community has elevated levels of a rare bile duct cancer, Cholangiocarcinoma, which he believes people are developing from consuming local water and foods harvested off the land which have been contaminated with the by-products of oil production.

Young was sharp and concise with his words saying, “To me its a basic matter of integrity. Canada is trading integrity for money. That’s whats happening under the current leadership in Canada. Which is a very poor imitation of the George Bush administration of the United States and is lagging behind on the world stage. It’s an embarrassment to many Canadians. As a Canadian I felt like I had a chance to do something by bringing this [fundraiser] together.”

Young had a solemn message for the people of Canada saying, “I first visited the Fort Mac area a while ago and viewed the tar sands that are available for viewing form the ground. What I saw was a devastating environmental catastrophe which of course is a ‘Boomtown’ now. It’s providing money for all kinds of people for the next few years. But it doesn’t think about our grandchildren. It doesn’t think about the future. We need to start thinking about the future is how I feel. I want to work towards the future. I want my grandchildren to grow up, look up and see a blue sky and have dreams that their grandchildren are going to do great things. I don’t see that today in Canada. I see a government completely out of control. Money is number one; integrity isn’t even on the map. So please get a grip and understand what is really happening. Try to talk to your neighbours, have people vote. Convince your First Nation friends to vote. Don’t accept what you hear as being true because it’s not. Anything that you’re hearing from the government about the tar sands is just marketing, it’s not truth. Take a second to really look at what you hear. That’s what I can say the rest of it’s up to you. You have to make up your own minds.”

For more information on the Honor the Treaties concerts and to donate to the ACFN Legal Defense Fund you can visit online www.drawtheline.ca

video by Jen MtPleasant

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  1. The Ostrich

    As a species I sometimes wonder if we most resemble the ostrich.
    If we duck our heads, ignore the problem for long enough, it will just, maybe,
    hopefully, please, go away. Or perhaps our approach is more like Bill Clinton’s
    solution to gays in the military – don’t
    ask, don’t tell! After all, if nobody talks about it, it isn’t there, is it?

    My brother-in-law, a house painter and his friend, who has
    worked in Alberta sum it up this way: “it’s been about 150 years since the
    Industrial Revolution and we’ve done this much damage to the environment. We
    might get another 100 years out of it all.”

    At a church luncheon, a fellow parishioner relates to me his
    experience of reading about the poisoning of the St Clare River at Sarnia.
    “I was there the night the company put that stuff in the ground and
    supposedly sealed it off.” There was pain in his eyes and no doubt, in his
    heart and in his soul. I stated that it was amazing how many people I speak
    with, ordinary people, blue collar workers, who understand that we are
    gradually destroying the planet. He casually observed, “there will be a

    It’s hardly unlikely that for some inexplicable reason, I am
    the only guy who has these conversations. It is more likely that most of us see
    the truth for what it is. We are gradually, speeding up, speeding up, speeding
    up, destroying the very planet that gives us life. Suicide or madness? Take
    your pick, I can’t figure it out.

    I wonder who our political leaders talk to? Do they have
    these conversations or are they shielded for their own protection? They don’t
    appear to be losing much sleep about it all as the oil companies drill away, as
    the auto manufacturers continue to turn out the gas combustion engine, as
    poisons are released into our rivers, lakes, oceans, landfills – anywhere the
    millions upon millions of barrels of poisonous waste can be hidden for awhile. Long
    enough, they hope, to finish making the money, packing up and leaving the
    deadly stuff behind. Perhaps, like Chernoble, the animals will have another
    paradise, free of humans, in a future that may be as inevitable as the prediction
    of my house painter friend – a hundred years or so.

    Is it possible to change a future that is rushing towards us
    virtually unhindered except for sporadic demonstrations and vocal minorities
    who are often perceived as “radical”, “inhibiting progress”,
    “tree-huggers”, “terrorists”, “trouble – makers”,
    etc? Most days are like today – I simply have no idea whether we have the
    rational or empathetic ability to slow down, stop and possibly reverse the race
    to the “end of the human race.”

    Joe Wiseman


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