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Of What Use Is Canada?

“I always felt that Canada was a different place and where the values were different and that we cherish the natural surroundings that we're in. But my visit to Alberta changed a lot of that for me.”                                   

                                                                                                       – Neil Young

Neil Young, one of Canada’s most beloved singer-songwriters, drove his alternative fuel-electric car up to Fort McMurray last September.

Making a movie about carbon dioxide emissions, he wanted to look at the tar sands.

Young got out of his car in the Northern Alberta city and smelled fuel.

“That was the air in Fort McMurray which is 25 miles away from the nearest [tar sands] site and I could smell it and it was burning my eyes and I could feel it in my throat. That was my first impression,” Young says in an eloquent interview with CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi.

Later, the 68-year-old Young recounts a visit to one of the tar sands production sites and being astounded by what he saw. All he could compare it to was Hiroshima after being devastated by the atomic bomb. 

“As an environmentally concerned Canadian I was shocked by what I saw. It is the ugliest environmental disaster that not only have I ever seen but that I could even comprehend, it is huge.”

Young was interviewed before his Sunday concert at Massey Hall in Toronto kicking off the Honour the Treaties tour – a series of benefit concerts raising money to fight the Jackpine Mine tar sands expansion project.

With jazz singer and pianist Diana Krall, Young is fundraising for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation legal defense fund. The ACFN argue that the proposed development violates treaties and will harm local wetlands. There has also been an alarming increase in cancer deaths in the area which has been attributed to air and water pollution from the tar sands.

Tour hopes to raise awareness

Young says the goal of the concerts is to bring awareness to people who care and those who may not be aware of what is going on in the Fort McMurray area.

“The tar sands projects put out as much CO2 in one day as all the automobiles in Canada on that day so in one day it’s like there are twice as many cars on the road,” says Young.

Calling it “the tour of broken promises,” he says the federal government is ignoring the promises contained in Treaty Number 8.

“I went up there find out about CO2. What I found was a bunch of people that were being persecuted, and lied to and misled.” he says.

Young says the Stephen Harper government is an embarrassment to Canada.

Canada trading integrity for money

“This government is trading the integrity of Canada for money, make no mistake about it. I see a government completely out of control, money is number one, integrity isn’t even on the map.”

While he says the opinions he is expressing are his own, Young stresses that Canadians have a decision to make.

“It is up to Canadians all across Canada to make up their own minds about whether their own integrity is threatened by a government that won’t live up the treaties that this country is founded on,” he says.

Later in the interview, Ghomeshi says the bigger picture requires some kind of balance with economic needs and environmental harm.

“We have a cultural dependence on oil, we have a system based on oil,” says Ghomeshi.

“Why, because it exists?” asks Young.

“Yes,” replies Ghomeshi.

No need to be oil dependent

“That’s not a good enough reason for me. I disagree with the reason behind us feeling that we’re dependent on oil. It’s a basic problem,” says Young.

“For me as a thinking person, as a person who’s looking into the future, who’s looking out for my grandchildren, who’s looking out for the future of Canada and the United States and everybody that I meet, that’s who I am. I look at it that way.”

Young was joined at a pre-concert news conference by Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) chief Allan Adam, BC Green Party MLA Andrew Weaver, and scientist and broadcaster David Suzuki.

In front of the media cameras, Young says the tar sands are “the greediest, most destructive and disrespectful demonstration of just something run amok, that you could ever see. There’s no way to describe it, so I described it as Hiroshima which was basically pretty mellow compared to what’s really going on up there, so I still stand by what I said about Fort Mc and about the way it looks.”

Stop giveaway of resources

I believe it is time for all Canadians to think about what Canada is for. Our country has a history of giving away its resources. It began with fish and beaver pelts, and has continued with lumber, nickel, uranium, water, electricity, potash, oil and gas.

Our federal and provincial governments are poised to sell off the last remaining oil and gas deposits. Is this the only use we can make of Canada, to dig it up and sell it off, knowing that doing so is a violation against aboriginal peoples and environmental ethics? Are we so bereft intellectually that we can think of no other way to build an economy?

The continued expansion of the tar sands and the proposed Northern Gateway and Keystone XL pipelines, as well as the myriad liquefied natural gas proposals, have no place in Canada’s economic future.

Neil Young is giving Canadians a wake-up call. Are we listening?

Michael Jessen is a Nelson eco-writer, energy specialist and owner of the consultancy Zero Waste Solutions. He can be reached by email at zerowaste@shaw.ca

RESOURCES: Neil Young’s interview with Jian Ghomeshi can be found at http://www.cbc.ca/q/blog/2014/01/13/neil-young-oilsands-occupation/

The video version of Jian's interview with Neil Young will air Wednesday (January 15) night on The National.

The Ottawa Citizen’s report of Neil Young’s pre-concert media conference is at http://www.ottawacitizen.com/entertainment/Neil+Young+blasts+Harper+government+allowing+oilsands+development/9378233/story.html

A longer version of the press conference is available from the Georgia Straight at http://www.straight.com/blogra/564946/video-neil-young-condemns-oil-sands-developments-comparing-their-effects-hiroshima

A Globe and Mail review of Young’s January 12th concert at Massey Hall can be found at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/music/whimsical-neil-young-breathes-new-life-into-old-songs-at-massey-hall-show/article16294839/

The National Post’s Peter Foster comments on Young’s statements at http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2014/01/12/neil-youngs-misguided-assault-on-alberta-oil-sands/

The Honor the Treaties tour continues to Winnipeg’s Centennial Concert Hall, Jan. 16; Regina’s Conexus Arts Centre, Jan. 17; and Calgary’s Jack Singer Concert Hall, Jan. 19.