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Helpless: What the Neil Young uproar says about our oil sands sensitivity Add to ...

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The reaction to Neil Young’s comments on the oil sands and the Keystone XL pipeline speaks volumes about Canadian sensitivities to the debate.

As The Globe and Mail’s Paul Koring and Kelly Cryderman report, the Canadian-born rocker waded into this fierce debate Monday at a National Farmers Union event in Washington to promote alternative fuels, telling the crowd about his old Continental, which runs on electricity and ethanol, and about his recent trip to Alberta.

Among his provocative comments:

“The fact is, Fort McMurray looks like Hiroshima. Fort McMurray is a wasteland. The Indians up there and the native peoples are dying. The fuels all over – the fumes everywhere – you can smell it when you get to town. The closest place to Fort McMurray that is doing the tar sands work is 25 or 30 miles out of town and you can taste it when you get to Fort McMurray. People are sick. People are dying of cancer because of this. All the First Nations people up there are threatened by this.”

And on Keystone XL:

“Yeah, it’s going to put a lot of people to work, I’ve heard that, and I’ve seen a lot of people that would dig a hole that’s so deep that they couldn’t get out of it, and that’s a job, too, and I think that’s the jobs that we are talking about there with the Keystone pipeline.”

Keystone and oil sands opponents cheered the singer-songwriter, one of Canada’s most prolific and renowned artists since the 1960s, while others took him to task.

Among them were Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, whose government is pushing hard for U.S. approval of Keystone, and Melissa Blake, mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray. Many readers also took Mr. Young to task on our website, while rock station 97.9 went so far as to ban his music, at least temporarily.

Ms. Blake was particularly passionate, as you'd expect, given the comparison to Hiroshima: “When it comes to the community of Fort McMurray, you’re overwhelmed, frankly, by the beauty of it.”

It’s not surprising that Mr. Young would take a stand on an issue. He’s done so before - celebrities do that -  and he’ll do it again.

We applauded him for his lyrical stand on issues like racism in the American south and the deaths of four university kids at an antiwar demonstration at an Ohio campus.

This time the issue is one that strikes a chord in Canada amid a global debate over the oil sands and the pitched battle over Keystone XL, which would, if built, carry Alberta oil to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

That this type of backlash tends to occur in other countries - recall the outrage when Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks told concert goers in 2003 that the band was "ashamed" George W. Bush is a Texan - shows just how high temperatures are running on this issue, particularly in Alberta.

What happened this week in Washington, and reverberated in Fort McMurray and Ottawa, underscores how sensitive Canadians are on this issue. And while many have long understood the nature of the debate in the United States, some may not have realized the extent to which it resonates among Canadians.

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