"It's all marketing. It's all big money. This oil is all going to China. It's not for Canada. It's not for the United States. It's not ours – it belongs to the oil companies, and Canada's government is behind making this happen. It's truly a disaster."
At a press conference held on the stage of Toronto's Massey Hall this afternoon, the environmentally concerned singer-songwriter Neil Young spoke out strongly against the federal government's role in the industrial development of Northern Alberta oil sands.
The veteran musician was speaking in advance of a solo-acoustic concert to be held at the venerable hall on Sunday evening, in benefit of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and its fight against the oil companies and governments. The AFCN claims land treaties have been violated; the Massey show, the first of four Honour the Treaties concerts in Canada, aids a legal defence fund.
Mr. Young first waded into the controversy over the oil sands and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline in September. Following his visit to northern Alberta, he warned of the health effects on First Nations peoples and described the area around Fort McMurray as a Hiroshima-like "wasteland."
The media event began (and concluded) with a demonstration of pow-wow drum music.
Appearing on stage at Massey with Chief Allen Adam of the AFCN, climate scientist and Deputy Leader of the Green Party of British Columbia Andrew Weaver and indigenous rights advocate Eriel Deranger, the buckskin-jacket clad Mr. Young did not shy away from his previous inflammatory comments on the issue. "It's one of the ugliest things I've ever seen," he said, referring to the oil sand developments. He added his previous descriptions were actually understated – "basically pretty mellow" – and that the industrial sites stood for disease and pollution.
Moreover, Mr. Young expressed his distaste for what he sees as the "pure hypocrisy" of government leaders on the matter. "Canada is trading integrity for money," he said, comparing Prime Minister Stephen Harper's administration as an "embarrassment" and a "very poor imitation" of the George W. Bush administration in the United States.
Mr. Young, who has a history of protest songs, went to despair that Canada was breaking Treaty 8, signed in 1899 and one of 12 land agreements made between the government of Canada and First Nations people. "We made a deal with these people," said the Southern Man singer. "We are breaking our promise. We are killing these people."
Allowing that "there must be another side to this story," Mr. Young pointed out that government officials were invited to participate in the press conference, but that they "respectfully declined." Indeed, three empty chairs were on stage, assigned to Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, Toronto Conservative MP Joe Oliver and Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Bernard Valcourt.
Jason MacDonald, a spokesman for Mr. Harper, countered that "projects are approved only when they are deemed safe for Canadians and [the] environment" and stressing that the resource sector creates "economic opportunities" and "high-wage jobs" for thousands of Canadians.
"Canada's natural resources sector is and has always been a fundamental part of our country's economy," MacDonald wrote in an e-mail to The Canadian Press.
"Even the lifestyle of a rock star relies, to some degree, on the resources developed by thousands of hard-working Canadians every day. Our government recognizes the importance of developing resources responsibly and sustainably and we will continue to ensure that Canada's environmental laws and regulations are rigorous. We will ensure that companies abide by conditions set by independent, scientific and expert panels."
The occasion was weighty, but the seriousness was momentarily broken when the event moderator David Suzuki said he had requested to meet with Prime Minister Harper on the oil sands issue on three separate occasions. "Well, you've got a bad reputation," Mr. Young said of the outspoken science broadcaster and environmental activist, to a burst of laughter from the assembled throng.
The speakers shared the stage with all the instruments to be used by Mr. Young later in the evening: Eight acoustic guitars, one banjo, a beat-up saloon piano, a psychedelically-painted concert piano and a towering pump organ. The Vancouver jazz chanteuse will also perform on the tour, which moves on to halls in Winnipeg (Jan. 16), Regina (Jan. 17) and Calgary (Jan. 19).
With a report from The Canadian Press