Standing His Ground

Neil Young raised cash, and Regina’s consciousness

by Rick Pollard

Neil Young

Neil Young says his parents raised him to do two things: “ Keep your word. And clean up your mess.”

During a Jan. 17 press conference for Young’s Honour The Treaties tour, the iconic Canadian rocker told reporters that the federal government has done neither. It has failed to keep the promises of the treaties. It has failed  to properly oversee tarsands development. The consequence? The devastation of  the land around Fort MacMurray.

Young’s response was the four-city benefit concert tour to raise money for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation’s (ACFN) Legal Defence Fund.  Apparently, it was the right response: his benefit concerts — the last of which was Jan. 19 in Calgary —”succeeded beyond our wildest dreams in raising money for legal defence of the First Nations,” Young told media in Calgary.

“Global environmental forces are joining us now with financial resources, and it’s now because of the Canadian people’s awesome response to our call for justice,” Young added.

Even before surpassing the tour’s $75,000 target, Young didn’t not shy away from the controversy that followed his tour.

“This is not about me,” he told reporters at the Regina presser. “This is not about whether I’m qualified to talk about this.”

Much of the media coverage of the concert tour centered on the colourful language Young used to describe the impact of the tarsands on the landscape around Fort Mac Murray. The rock star did not back down from those earlier comments; in fact, he followed them with dramatic predictions of what would happen if treaties with First Nations were not honoured.

But the real purpose of the tour was to defend the treaties — and Young was accompanied by a number of people with something to say about those issues, including Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam, other ACFN officials, guests from Treaty 4 First Nations, renowned ecologist David Schindler and legendary environmentalist and educator David Suzuki.

“This is not an anti-oilsands campaign,” said Chief Adam, noting  that his First Nation has been fully engaged in the oilsands for 20 years, and many of its members work in the oilsands and pay taxes to the federal government. “It’s about our treaty rights.”

ACFN leaders say the Harper government has been acting in bad faith, despite the First Nation’ s repeated attempts over the last several years to engage in productive negotiations with Ottawa and with companies like Shell who are pushing for further development. And on Jan. 13, the band announced that it has filed an application to overturn the federal government’s recent decision to approve the Shell Jackpine Mine Expansion project.

A key issue driving the lawsuit is that 80 per cent of the traditional territories of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Mikisew Cree First Nation are inaccessible for large periods of the year thanks to oil sands development. The new Jackpine Mine development  will place further restrictions on access to traditional lands — in particular a protection zone north of the Firebag River specifically highlighted by ACFN elders in a 2010 declaration. “This area is critical to the survival of our treaty rights, “ declared Eriel Deranger from ACFN. “ It doesn’t matter how much money they throw at us.”

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers has claimed that Neil Young’s concert tour is hurting First Nations communities, pointing to all of the jobs and economic development generated by the oilsands. But  David Schindler pointed to the negatives, including increased pollution of the Athabasca River, and the resulting harm to human health, and to animals like the caribou who are important to traditional First Nations lifestyles.

2014-01-23