Mile after mile of voluptuous, gritty black gold is wrought, scooped, sucked, scraped and squeezed from thegreasy desert carcass of stolen boreal forests. Whether or not you think this resembles the charred aftermath of a nuclear blast, there’s no denying that the tar sands outside infamous “Fort Mac” mark the ugliest 30,000-square kilometers in Canadian history. No traditional open-pit mine, toxic asbestos dig, outfall refuse site, sewage dump or landfill could compete with this vast wasteland of lifeless, chewed-up grime, broken up only by leeching ponds of poisonous tailings. The whole scene seems to belong more in an ominous Lord of the Rings scene fronting evidence of the evil Sauron’s devastating wrath than wrapped between the beautiful Northern ranch-land and crisp wildlife of Alberta Canada, except that it may be too ugly even for Peter Jackson’s overblown cinematic sensibilities. No wonder, like this place’s most dangerous combatant – thecharismatic country-folk superstar Neil Young and his provocative, articulate mumbles – the tarsands always seem to steal the show.
On Friday, January 24, Neil Young wrapped up his 4-week concert series raising awareness of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, health concerns arising from scientific links between increases in rare cancers and their proximity to the oil sands, their frustration over the federal government’s failing to acknowledge their sovereignty, treaty and inherent land rights, the treaty agreements of other first nations across Canada, Harper’s degradation of democratic process and consultation on resource extraction projects and yes…alsothe national and global environmental impacts of the tar sands. Concert after concert, Young sat with Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations chief Allan Adam and a range of other stakeholders, including (at different times) indigenous-rights advocate and ACFN representative Eriel Deranger, environmental advocates Vanessa Gray and David Suzuki, climate scientist, BC MLA and BC Green Party Deputy Leader Andrew Weaver, and ecology professor David Schindler. Together, the expert panel – between showings ofthe Greenpeace documentary Petropolis and acoustic renditions Old Man – pontificated on the complex relationships between these topics and the need for major societal and political shifts in democratic convention, economic priority, and relations with first nations. Since then, a growing number of prominent Canadians have joined the cause. From all of this, the media and the majority of Canadians seem to have taken away one thing: Neil Young hates the oil industry, and it hates him back.
There’s been a flurry of embattled rants from politicians, bitter letters-to-the-editors in Alberta publications, trending photographic tweets of Fort Macmurray under the #myHiroshima hashtag from folks who seemed to mistake Young’s oil sands analogy for a literal description of their community, emotionally torn editorials from sympathetic resource-industry supporters and well-publicized backlash from the industry. What there hasn’t been is any public discussion of the demands for serious inquiries or medical investigations into the higher cancer rates in Chipewyan communities, let alone of the namesake issue for the entire campaign: “Honor theTreaties.”
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Given the lack of focus on treaty rights throughout the internationally-publicized confrontation between Canada’s biggest industrial benefactors and the celebrity ex-pat, Canadians are probably wondering what that giant native art banner at the back of the stage even refers to. In the context captured by the likes of the Toronto Sun, CTV, and The National Post, the campaign’s title is as meaningless as Young’s misinformation about Albertan oil exports to China.
Speaking of which, Young’s tongue-in-cheek dismissal of his inaccuracies is justified in a way, but the way they add voluminously to the racket and confusion surrounding the oil fields, and distract further from other critical conversations, is almost tragic. “Everybody knows” that Young doesn’t know what he’s talking about, in his own words. “I’m a musician,” he says. Thus, asserting himself as a kind of town-crier for the cause and notthe authoritative mouthpiece for the movement that the media – and government – seem to mistake him for. It’s an honest – if overly humble – appraisal of his role in the Honor the Treaties Campaign. It’s also the reason why he shouldn’t be cast in the lone spotlight and so often assumed to speak with the “green voice” or even, more problematically, through the power of suggestion, the “native” voice. Left alone to untie the arduous knot of perplexing related issues, from medical science to economic development to dealing with a culture of cyclical colonialism, in the simplified sound-bites that the media selectively devours as sweet eye-candy for readers who crave juicy, sharable, byte-sized headlines, the blame does not rest on Young, or the First Nations representatives who welcomed him into their ranks and who would, admittedly, be short many valuable mentions without his pull.
Instead, the blame lies with the media and the rest of us Canadians. We who underestimate our own collective ability to temper our natural gravitation towards sensationalistic headlines over valuable teachings, towards sharing articles with more sting than poise and more graphic visuals than challenging stats.
All of this is not to say that our fears are not justified. Campaigns like Young’s – that begin with multi-page manifestos and bullet-lists of fundamental demands spanning everything from corporate influence to government policy to democratic process – movements like Occupy and Idle No More, have arguably lacked in focus what they achieved in ambition – or lacked in staying-power their initial tremendous impact. The Honor the Treaties campaign has adopted a pinpoint focus through a sort of fatal default, in spite of its own wisdom against twitter-length solutions to encyclopedia-sized problems. Look up “Honor the Treaties” on Google and instead of mandates from native governments, declarations of land rights or opinions about theusurpation of traditional Chipewyan wilderness for corporate exploitation wrapped in dubious promises, thetop result is reserved for the opinions of an upper-class white American singer about climate change. Those opinions are mostly well-informed, well-expressed and invaluable in sparking critical debate on Sauron’s bleak zone of carbon-emitting monstrosities. But those Google results are not the direct statements of Chipewyan natives, nor are they a good way to honor them and the treaties.
It’s time for our media and leaders to respect our intelligence by giving us the full picture. It’s time for all of us to stop dismissing treaty rights as “native issues” with no relevance to ourselves as descendants of European settlers. The problem is, even more than we all benefit from the dirty riches of the tarsands, we benefit from thearmed robbery of ceded native territory, treaty or no treaty. That’s a bigger cultural challenge than even Neil Young can bring the conscience of the nation to face first-hand.