Following a week of non-stop debate over Canada's oil sands resources, rock star Neil Young was in Calgary Sunday for his final Honour the Treaties performance and to insist he isn't on an "anti-tar-sands crusade."
Speaking to reporters prior to Sunday evening's concert, Mr. Young said he accomplished his goal of getting Canadians talking about First Nation treaty and environmental issues. Calgary will be another sold out show on Mr. Young's cross-Canada tour, which has prompted a flurry of both traditional and social media discussion over the environmental effects and the economic benefits of Alberta's oil sands.
"Our tour across Canada is to bring awareness that the First Nations treaties must be honoured if tar sands expansion is to take place," said Mr. Young – speaking on stage with Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam, environmentalist and broadcaster David Suzuki and other members of the First Nation and the tour's entourage.
"Honour the Treaties is not an anti-tar sands crusade as the [Calgary] Herald claims. Its purpose is to bring light to the fact that the treaties with First Nations peoples' are not being honoured by Canada."
Earlier this week Mr. Young said "rock stars don't need oil" and noted his use of his biomass-powered hybrid vehicle. While taking exception Sunday to some media reports of his comments and tour, he also answered questions about his carbon footprint, saying he does sometimes travel by private jet to get to his shows. He said he travelled by bus for the current tour and noted, "I may possibly be able to reverse that damage by the change that I can make in other people."
He pointed to the massive floods that hit southern Alberta last June as a sign of human-caused climate change, expressed his concern for what many First Nations communities believe are increased cancer rates due to oil sands pollution, and again defended his comparison of the oil sands region north of Fort McMurray to atomic-devastated Hiroshima.
But Mr. Young said the focus of his tour has always been about raising awareness and funds for the Athabasca Chipewyan, who this month filed a legal challenge to a multi-billion dollar proposed expansion of Royal Dutch Shell's Jackpine oil-sands mine. The expansion has been approved by both a joint review panel and the federal cabinet despite findings that it would have a long list of environmental impacts on wetlands and old growth forests. The First Nation said they were not properly consulted on the expansion project.
Chief Adam noted that his band must walk a fine line when it comes to oil sands development. He noted the First Nation receives compensated through "impact benefit agreements" for environmental effects in their traditional lands. Those dollars, he said, "are used to provide programs for housing, for school, education – everything that is needed for the First Nation."
Although the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers told reporters last week that industry members would be happy to meet with Mr. Young and Chief Adam, neither a meeting nor a joint press conference came to fruition this weekend.
Mr. Young said the industry lobby organization wouldn't accept Mr. Suzuki as a moderator, and a CAPP spokeswoman said the group wanted a neutral moderator – like an academic or a journalist – and at least as many of its own representatives on stage.
Mr. Young, the Canadian singer-songwriter behind hits such as Cinnamon Girl and Old Man, performed Sunday evening with jazz pianist Diana Krall serving as his opening act. He personally is not taking proceeds from the ticket sales and after tour expenses are paid, he has said he wants to hand over at least $300,000 to the Athabasca Chipewyan.
While some Fort McMurray residents took to Twitter to post scenic photos of their town under the tongue-in-cheek hashtag "myhiroshima," a small number of protesters also gathered outside the Calgary concert Sunday evening to protest against Mr. Young's words and tour – brandishing signs such as "I support Canada's oil sands" and "Hiroshima: 100,000 killed; Ft. McMurray: 100,000 jobs."
However the oil-sands proponents were outnumbered those participating in round-dances and drumming in support of the concert.
"It's a plus that these issues are coming to the forefront," said Walter S. Janvier, the former chief of the Cold Lake First Nation, which is now grappling with a number of bitumen leaks from a neighbouring Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. site.
"Neil Young and his notoriety brings a lot of these issues to the attention of all Canadians and Albertans. I think it will make a difference. I think there will be some people who will listen."
Many concertgoers, however, were there for the music – not the message.
Although her husband is a huge fan of the Canadian rocker, Calgary teacher Heather Lantz said she debated whether to buy tickets and thereby support Mr. Young's cause.
"We need the oil sands," Ms. Lantz said, adding that just as important is land reclamation once resource extraction is complete.