TORONTO – Canadian rock icon Neil Young launched a blistering attack on the Harper government and Alberta’s oilsands at a news conference on Sunday, saying that he was “shattered” after visiting a Fort McMurray industrial site he compared to the atomic bomb-devastated wreckage of Hiroshima, Japan.
Joined on the Massey Hall stage by representatives from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Young was especially scathing in his criticism of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s “hypocritical” administration, which Young said was ignoring science to irresponsibly drive corporate profits.
“Canada is trading integrity for money,” said the environmentally engaged 68-year-old rocker. “That’s what’s happening under the current leadership in Canada, which is a very poor imitation of the George Bush administration in the United States and is lagging behind on the world stage. It’s an embarrassment to any Canadians.”
“I want my grandchildren to grow up and look up and see a blue sky and have dreams that their grandchildren are going to do great things,” he added later. “And I don’t see that today in Canada. I see a government just completely out of control.
“Money is number one. Integrity isn’t even on the map.”
Young was speaking hours before he was set to take the same stage for a concert, the proceeds of which were to be directed to the Athabasca Chipeyan First Nation Legal Fund. The tour, which also features Canuck jazz chanteuse Diana Krall, was set to roll through Winnipeg and Regina before wrapping in Calgary on Jan. 19.
The stage was already dressed for Young’s show: a colourfully paint-smeared piano, a half-dozen guitars arranged in a circle, a majestic organ, a wooden First Nations figure and, behind it all as a massive backdrop, a red banner reading “Honor the Treaties.”
The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation represents a community living roughly 200 kilometres downstream of current oilsands development. The group is embroiled in a legal battle to protect their traditional territory from further industrialization.
Young, who was born in Toronto before launching his storied music career in Winnipeg, was ferocious in his condemnation of what he sees as a violation of treaty rights.
“The name Canada’s based on a First Nations word. The word Ottawa’s based on a First Nations word, Ontario’s based on a First Nations word, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Quebec — these are all First Nations word. This is where Canada came from,” said Young.
“We made a deal with these people. We are breaking our promise. We are killing these people. The blood of these people will be on modern Canada’s hands.”
Young said that “a while ago” he decided to drive his electric car from San Francisco to northern Alberta. Along the way, he stopped to meet Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam — who sat next to Young onstage on Sunday — and visit others in the community.
It was on this trip that Young also decided to see the oilsands first-hand. The visit certainly left a mark.
“(I) drove around the tarsands in my electric car viewing and experiencing this unbelievable smell and toxicity in my throat — my eyes were burning,” he recalled. “That started 25 miles away from the tarsands. When I was in Fort Mac, it got more intense. My son, who has cerebral palsy, has lung damage, (so) he was wearing a mask to keep the toxic things in the air out of his lungs and make it easy for him to have lungs after he left.”
They soon came upon a “huge industrial site.”
“It looked very big and very impressive. Extremely well-organized. A lot of people were working — hard-working people, who I respect,” Young remembered. “That was one of 50 sites. The one we saw was the cleanest one. It’s the best-looking one. It’s the poster child.
“And it’s one of the ugliest things I’ve ever seen.”
During the week’s concerts, Young said he planned on screening the 12-minute Greenpeace film “Petropolis,” which he said was “probably the most devastating thing you will ever see.”
“It’s the greediest, most destructive and disrespectful demonstration of just something run amok that you could ever see,” he said. “There’s no way to describe it, so I described it as Hiroshima, which was basically pretty mellow compared to what’s going on out there.
“I still stand by what I said about Fort Mac and the way it looks. Not because the houses in Fort Mac look like Hiroshima, but because Fort Mac stands for 50 sites, the name Fort Mac stands for diseases that these First Nations people are getting, pollution, everything that’s happening there.”
He soon segued into another attack on the Harper government.
“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 making this happen. It’s truly a disaster to anyone with an environmental conscience.”
Jason MacDonald, a spokesman for 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 email 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 regluations are rigorous. We will ensure that companies abide by conditions set by independent, scientific and expert panels.”
At one point during the hour-plus media session, Young was asked what he would say if granted a private consultation with Harper. Initially he demurred, muttering that the query “blew (his) mind.”
Later, however, he said he’d be open to such a meeting.
“I don’t think I’m going to get to see him anyway, but if he does want to see me, I’m ready to go see him. I would welcome the opportunity,” said Young, noting that he invited government representatives to attend the news conference and provide their side of the story, but the invitations were declined.
Environmental activist David Suzuki, who moderated the session, pointed out that he had personally tried to meet with Harper three times but had been rebuffed on all occasions.
“Well, you got a bad reputation,” Young replied with a smirk.
Young has been politically active on other matters recently as well. On his website, he’s posted messages questioning the pollution level in Shanghai and shaming Harper for competing “with Australia’s pro-coal government for the worst climate record in the industrialized world.”
The restlessly prolific guitar wizard hasn’t released new music since issuing “Americana” and “Psychedelic Pill” within a few months of each other in 2012. In 2009, he released an album about fossil fuels called “Fork in the Road.” He was asked Sunday whether this new campaign might similarly inspire new music.
“I don’t plan it. If I write something, it’ll come to me,” said Young, clad in a tassled light brown jacket, his face shaded by a black hat. “I think it will happen, but I don’t know.”