Neil Young and the Tar Sands

On January 12, 2014 Canadian singer Neil Young spoke out against the Alberta Tar Sands on his “Honour the Treaties” tour to “raise money for the legal fight against the expansion of the Athabasca oil sands in northern Alberta and other similar projects, in Toronto.” I’ve included the video for you to see for yourself below. 

Since deciding to speak out Young has been under a considerable amount of criticism. A radio station in Fort McMurray has responded with a “No Neil” day. They’ve been trying to get the #notawasteland hashtag trending on twitter and banned his music on their station. One of my favorite journalists (that’s sarcasm, FYI), Rex Murphy, insists that Young is a “man who cannot distinguish the nuclear bombing of city from a worksite [and] is plainly in need of rest and instruction.”  A spokesperson for the Canadian government responded by saying that “Even the lifestyle of a rock star relies, to some degree, on the resources developed by thousands of hard-working Canadians every day.”

I first heard about Young’s controversial statement on CBC radio as the host asked callers to respond with their opinion. The reoccurring theme coming from callers seemed to be “what does he know”. As a young person I found it especially frustrating when callers would insist that youth would now follow Young’s cause in droves, because you know us young people, we just do whatever celebrities tell us to.

It also made me think, where do people think they are getting their news? Do they think that journalists are experts in the field they are writing about and have gone and studied it firsthand? No. Neil Young has done nothing more than play journalist. He threw out a rather crude comparison to draw attention to a cause he thought was important. He then pointed attention to the First Nations community that has doggedly been fighting against the tar sands, only with little or no attention until they had a celebrity on their side.

The first time I heard about the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation was at a screening of the documentary H2Oil. I’ve included the first part of the documentary below. It explores the effects of the tar sands on the communities further down the Athabasca River, especially how toxins leaching from tailing ponds into the river have affected communities like the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.

In case you don’t feel like watching the video, I’ve also included some satellite photos from Google below

In response to our recent article about Jennifer Lawrence, one reader, Rosie, asked why we expect celebrities to be perfect spokespersons while we’re “not shocked when [a] co-worker makes a bizarre or unsympathetic comment”. I think my response would have to be to make some sort of gesture towards Neil Young and say, “that’s why.” Whether we like it or not, celebrities are one of the greatest awareness tools in existence, and they can do really great things with that power (and also really crappy things, but let’s focus on the good stuff for now).

This isn’t the first time Neil Young has spoken out on a political issue. And a lot of what he says isn’t new, it’s just that it’s an awkward story to cover in the news. In a lot of ways it comes down to First Nations land rights vs. economic benefits for the (primarily) Caucasian communities. And I don’t just mean Fort Mac. This is the debate happening in a lot of communities. It’s something I also touched on in my post about the New Prosperity Mine in Williams Lake. It’s not an easy issue to clear up because one side or the other is going to lose out. Plus, our government loves to pretend it is doing First Nations communities all sorts of big favors, while still pushing through projects like the tar sands against First Nations resistance.

I realize people are going to have differing opinions over Neil Young’s statement. In fact, we’ve already seen how journalists like Rex Murphy are happy to suggest that Young isn’t even qualified to have an opinion. Personally, I’m hoping this debate will eventually bring attention back to some of the tar sands’ problems; problems that have been so conveniently looked over in the past.

It’s also worth taking into consideration that Young is actually going to put funds from the tour towards supporting the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation as they fight to preserve their way of life. He’s also brought attention to the way the Canadian Government continues to hand over control of the Tar Sands to Chinese corporations

This isn’t the first time we’ve talked about the influence of celebrities here on CWR, and unfortunately, it probably won’t be the last, but I’d really like to know what do you think. When it comes to environmental and social issues where getting attention really matters, do celebrities make decent spokespersons? Or should Neil Young get off the soapbox and back to singing?

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